“Things will only get more dangerous as the battle reaches its final stages in Raqqa’s city centre. More can and must be done to preserve the lives of civilians trapped in the conflict and to facilitate their safe passage away from the battleground,” said Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International Donatella Rovera.
A damning report, published by Amnesty International on August 23, has highlighted the peril civilians face as they are concentrated by an all-encompassing military effort against the Islamic State in Raqqa.
Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate, now remains the jihadists’ last major, urban stronghold.
The piercing sound of military jets and the heavy blast of artillery is commonplace in the skies over Raqqa; a sound which instills fear in the heart of the citizens living amongst the jihadist fighters.
The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian Defense Force (SDF) partner have been engaged in a fierce battle with the Islamic State (IS) across Syria and Iraq. Eerily similar to the Battle for Mosul; entire buildings in Raqqa are being reduced to rubble in an attempt to oust IS from the city.
Civilians are trapped in the city and under fire from all sides, making it virtually impossible to escape and seek sanctuary.
A view of damaged buildings in Raqqa city. REUTERS
It often is difficult to identify the precise location of IS militants, and coalition forces rely on weapons with a wide impact radius in order to eliminate their targets.
“Whether you live or die depends on luck because you don’t know where the next shell will strike, so you don’t know where to run to,” said Mohammed to Amnesty. “It was hell, many shells struck the area.
Residents did not know how to save themselves. Some people ran from one place to another,” another neighbor recalled.
“The shells struck one house after the other. It was indescribable; it was like the end of the world – the noise, people screaming. I [will never] forget this carnage,” said a third.
British observatory group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has documented over 800 civilian fatalities in the city of Raqqa by the International Coalition since the beginning of the campaign in early June.
"The tolls are high because the air strikes are hitting neighborhoods in the city centre that are densely packed with civilians," said the Director of SOHR, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Those who wish to escape face two options: pay a smuggler ($100 a person) to guide you out the city, or face the perilous journey alone. Either way the risk is high. Buildings and alleys are rigged with booby traps; routes out of the city are laced with landmines, and IS snipers target any civilians attempting to flee the city.
“Daesh [IS] kept us like rats in a cage; they blocked all the exits, while missiles and shells were falling on us from the sky,” said Hala to Amnesty.
IS traps are not the greatest danger however; the eye in the sky provides an unremitting yet unintentional threat to those trying to flee.
Civilians are often targeted by coalition jets since distinguishing between militias and civilians often proves difficult. As Mahmoud explained to Amnesty, “The planes couldn’t distinguish between IS and civilians as IS made us all wear the same clothes.”
If one manages to evade IS snipers in the city, circumvent landmines and booby traps encircling the city, and avoid the eye in the sky hovering above the city, the final major challenge of crossing the Euphrates before reaching the safety of Kurdish held territory is often the most perilous.
The destruction of bridges and the prevalence of landmines means that crossing the river is one of the most utilized routes for civilians fleeing the city. Yet boats crossing the river are a principal target of air-strikes as the coalition attempts to strike down IS militants transporting goods across the river.
Map of Raqqa. GOOGLE EARTH
“We shoot every boat we find,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the American commander of the coalition force fighting the militants, said to the New York Times in July. “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.”
South-east of Raqqa and south of the Euphrates river, Russian backed Syrian government forces are engaged in a battle against IS as they attempt to push east towards Deir Ezzor.
Although asserting its campaign has targeted militant forces only, Amnesty International has collected damning evidence on the contrary. The indiscriminate use of cluster and barrel bombs by Russian-backed Syrian government forces is relentless, and has challenged the civilians to find safety in a chilling game of hide and seek.
Civilians were given forewarning that they would find refuge close to the river; however the shelters they constructed in this supposed ‘safe-zone’ soon came under fire.
“At around 9am on July 23 I heard the sound of a plane. It dropped four cluster bombs on the camp. The ground jumped. Afterwards I helped to bury the bodies. Eight people were killed from one family. Thirty people were injured,” said Abdel, a survivor from the bombardment, to Amnesty International.
Although signed and ratified by 100 states, the U.S., Russia and Syria are not party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which outlaws the use of cluster munitions.
Scorched-earth polices and indiscriminate attacks on civilians continue to blatantly violate international law.
IS deserves condemnation for their inhuman and merciless treatment of civilians under their self-proclaimed caliphate, yet Russia, the U.S. and the Syrian government continue to breach these same laws and conventions themselves.
“All of a sudden, there were explosions all around, like fireworks. Then I fainted,” said Usama, a 14-year-old boy who suffered extensive injury during the bombardment.
The defeat of Islamic State forces from Raqqa is now a matter of ‘when’, and not ‘if’. The push east towards Deir Ezzor is a close reality, and will likely prove the most complex and influential battle in the war. The major players are acutely aware of this, and the ferocity of the Battle for Raqqa indicates their desire to push east to gain the advance in this crucial stage of the war.
In the pertinent words of Husaam Eissa of the activist collective ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’: “Unfortunately, civilians have no way to protect themselves.”