Syrian family returns from militant camp to hostile city

Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press

Raqqa, Syria — After two years on the run with the Islamic State group, Um Mahmoud just wanted to return home. When she finally made it to Raqqa with her daughters and grandchildren, she found her home partially burned but livable. She also found a hostile city reluctant to take her back.

The 53-year-old seamstress had returned from al-Hol camp, where 73,000 people, most of them families of IS militants, have been kept since the territorial defeat of the group in March.

A waiter refills a water pipe at a cafe near battle-ravaged buildings in al-Naim Square in Raqqa, Syria. Two years after the military offensive, Raqqa has been picking up the pieces. Streets have been cleared while city workers keep them clean.

But there is little trust in the returnees in Raqqa, which IS ruled with a brutal hand for years and which suffered massive devastation in the fight to drive it out. Um Mahmoud’s neighbors and relatives in Raqqa have shunned her.

“No one asks about us,” said the mother of six. “Relatives are … afraid of us.”

Her return, in June, is part of an experiment by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led administration that runs northeastern Syria — an attempt to bring reconciliation to Raqqa after the upheaval that tore apart its social fabric.

City administrators have allowed the return of nearly 700 families from al-Hol. The camp includes some 30,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, along with tens of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of foreigners. Most of those foreigners’ home countries have refused to take them back.

The administration here argues it’s better to bring the families back into the fold rather than leave them stewing in radicalism. The return is coordinated with Arab tribal sheikhs, who vouch for the returnees, acting as guarantors they will not cause trouble. Thousands more Syrians in the camp have applied to return.

The results of the experiment are still uncertain, Um Mahmoud’s case makes clear. She and her family spoke on condition they not be identified by their full names because of the stigma they face. Um Mahmoud means mother of Mahmoud in Arabic, a common way of addressing women in the Arab and Muslim world that uses the name of their firstborn son.

She and her family fled Raqqa in the summer of 2017 when IS ordered their neighborhood evacuated in the face of advances by the U.S.-backed forces and coalition airstrikes. They moved with the retreating militants from town to town over the following months, until the group’s final showdown in the eastern village of Baghouz. Two of her sons and a son-in-law were killed while fighting or working for IS.

She emerged from Baghouz and was sent to al-Hol along with her three daughters and three grandchildren. Her husband, father, her surviving 14-year-old son and a son-in-law are in detention with the Kurdish-led forces. The son-in-law was sentenced to a year in prison for membership in IS, though it was determined he didn’t fight.

Without her male relatives, Um Mahmoud returned to a Raqqa that is trying to move on.

Streets that were once unidentifiable under piles of debris have been cleared, and municipality workers are keeping them clean.

Many tall buildings in the skyline are still bombed-out skeletons, but residents have moved in, rebuilding apartments or opening shops. New restaurants have sprung up, some along the banks of the river running across the city. Billboards rise over busy streets. One advertised a new wedding planning business that commissions singers, banned under IS. Vegetables from nearby farms color street stands. Public parks brim with children and their families.

Officials say more than 800,000 people have returned to the city and its suburbs, nearly eight times the number who were still left in the city when IS was finally expelled in October 2017.

Local officials said they restored 18 of 24 water pumping stations damaged by fighting. More than 300 schools, out of 800, now operate with tens of thousands of students. The U.S-led coalition has trained more than 7,500 men and women for Raqqa’s internal security forces and refurbished 20 bridges destroyed in the fighting.

A U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said “very targeted” spending has been going into newly liberated areas to ensure that IS doesn’t return.