Screams of confusion, of fear, of joy: These are the reactions of civilians escaping the inferno of the Syrian city of Raqqah, once the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital and now the target of a furious coalition-backed campaign.
The arrivals to a neighborhood held by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated collection of militias also known as the SDF, was captured in a three-minute video released Friday by Mezopotamya news agency, a Turkey-based Kurdish outlet. Their relief at making it out alive hints at the carnage gripping their city. The Los Angeles Times could not verify the authenticity of the video.
One woman, obscured by the black abaya and niqab face covering required by Islamic State, sprints toward the SDF fighters while shouts are heard: “We’ve arrived, we’ve arrived!” Moments earlier, a man on crutches hobbles towards the militiamen, begging for water before he collapses on the ground to kiss it, happy to have escaped. The sounds of gunfire accompany their exodus.
“May Allah have vengeance on them. Allah is stronger than they are,” says another woman in reference to Islamic State fighters, as she clutches the hands of a male companion.
The SDF, which began its offensive on Raqqah more than five months ago, is working with coalition special forces and warplanes to oust the jihadis from a city they have called their own since 2014.
Less than 15% of Raqqah remains in the hands of Islamic State, said the coalition’s spokesman Friday, with the jihadis — many of them thought to be among its die-hard foreign cadres — still in control of the city’s National Hospital, its stadium and a section to the north.
But it is the estimated 4,000 civilians still trapped in Raqqah who are facing a “deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides,” according to an August report by the rights group Amnesty International.
Those civilians not killed by the constant barrage of artillery and airstrikes must navigate past Islamic State booby traps or the group’s snipers, who target anyone trying to escape. Those unable to flee are being used as human shields, the coalition says, while activists say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the operation.
The coalition said Friday that approximately 1,500 civilians had made it to safety in the last week.
Yet even those who arrive unscathed are not in the clear: Many face suspicion of having collaborated with Islamic State or being one of the group’s suicide bombers.
“Stop where you are,” barks one SDF fighter at a man before ordering him to throw away an item in his hand.
“That’s my husband. We’re civilians,” shouts a woman.
The video comes as tribal leaders along with the Raqqah Civil Council, an administration set up by the SDF, have been negotiating safe passage for those residents still trapped in areas held by the militants.
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the war-monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in London, said in a phone interview Friday that negotiations had stalled because French intelligence operatives have refused to allow anyone to leave the city without being thoroughly checked.
However, the coalition said that those departing the city “who are found to have fought for Daesh will be turned over to local authorities to face justice.”
Islamic State is also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.
Bulos is a special correspondent.