Four months ago, Syria’s Raqqa found itself drenched in bloodshed as fierce and violent battles ripped through the former ISIS stronghold. When casually strolling down liberated areas, it becomes all the more evident how destructive the battles were.
Homes wrecked to the ground, debris, and a demolished infrastructure all spell out a devastating new reality left behind by ISIS.
For the few lucky neighborhoods which survived bombardment and stray bullets, the war still left its mark through shattered windows and broken doors taken down by blast waves.
Despite the destruction, joy prevailed as citizens and Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated smashing victory against ISIS on the liberated streets of Raqqa.
SDF fighters gathered at Raqqa’s center with a celebratory spirit, forming traditional dance rings, raising SDF flags and chanting slogans about victory and freedom.
Triumphant convoys and demonstrators paraded around Raqqa, as the former ISIS bastion is now under full control of the US-backed Syrian rebels.
Raqqa’s infamous “Al-Naim” square, dubbed ISIS’ square of hell, now is home to fluttering SDF flags waving in the near completion of military operations.
“Today we stand at Al-Naim square, which was once dubbed the circle of hell as it served as an arena for brutal executions carried out against anyone who opposed ISIS and the rule of its self-proclaimed caliphate,” Leader and Spokeswoman for the SDF "Euphrates Wrath" (Ghadab Al-Furrat) military campaign Rogada Flatt told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The capture of Al-Naim followed fighting since Sunday near the square, the Arab-Kurdish alliance said in a statement.
“We are left with only a few points, and combing operations are underway to eliminate the sleeper cells and cleanse the city of mines,” asserted Flatt on the continued liberation of Raqqa, the caliphate’s former ‘capital’.
"At least 22 ISIS members surrendered to our forces and were sent to detention centers for investigation, after which they will be referred to the adequate courts," said SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed.
Reviewing battles fought, Ahmed said that “a few foreign militiamen kept fighting until the last minute.”
“Our forces have started mop-up and sweeping operations considering the probability of ISIS cells hiding in some locations," said Ahmed. “Mines planted by the cells need to be defused to make sure that the entire city has been cleared,” she added.
Since June, Raqqa residents have been held hostage by ISIS terrorists.
As the terror group lost more and more territory, it resorted to using these civilians as human shields.
Surviving civilians were trapped in hellfire as SDF troops carried out operations, US-led coalition staged airstrikes, and ISIS snipers infested the streets and prevented people from escaping.
Haitham al-Zaher, 48, was the last civilian to escape ISIS captivity.
Zaher managed to escape with his wife and three daughters.
“We could not escape until clashes were close to us— until then, my wife and I decided alongside 7 other families, to take shelter in an abandoned cellar, where we stayed 3 days in hiding, food and water were scarce and almost ran out,” said Zaher.
“We lived through very difficult moments, where we heard the thuds of heavy shelling and cracking of clashes,” he added.
Malika al-Zaher, aged 38, said that during September her family was moved 14 times to different locations.
"As the fighting progressed, ISIS ordered us to change the place, taking us as human shields," said Zaher’s wife.
Today, Syrians in Raqqa sent out a cry for help to conduct extensive investigations in order to reveal the fate ISIS-held detainees and to restore the city once again to its people.