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Although the Islamic State’s physical territory has dissolved, immense destruction from the brutal battle to eradicate the militant group remains. In the former caliphate’s capital city, Raqqa, survivors sort through the wreckage in search of bodies, recalling the atrocities they’ve seen in this city of the dead. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Raqqa.
It's been nearly two weeks since the Trump administration declared the end of the ISIS caliphate, the Islamic State that spanned an area in Syria and Iraq the size of England. Its capital was the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The battle to oust ISIS was brutal, and the destruction enormous. There are now some signs of life in the city.
But, as special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Raqqa, it is, in many ways, a city of the dead after ISIS.
No place embodies the devastation of the war against is more than Raqqa, the Islamic State's former capital, the city that ISIS prized so dearly, devastated by a U.S.-led bombing campaign to take it from them.
A year-and-a-half after those bombs stopped, the city is in ruin, little more than a gray expanse of smashed concrete. Down below, Yassir Khamis drives an ambulance through the city, but there is no one here left to save. His teams now collect the dead, and he takes us to a recently discovered mass grave.
Yassir Khamis (through translator):
We were surprised by the number of bodies there. People came to us and told us about this grave. This land is agricultural land. It belongs to people, and the owners want it back. So we are removing the bodies.
This quiet tree-lined field became a grave for more than 400, Khamis tells us. It's a last resting place for both ISIS fighters and their victims. Here, they lay together side by side in death.
Yassir Khamis (through translator):
The people who were beheaded in the city were brought here. ISIS didn't allow the families to know where they buried them, because they said they were spies and agents.
After so long in the ground, it's hard enough to tell woman from man, man from child, let alone innocent from guilty. In the end, that all fades, alongside the bodies, leaving just small piles of bones.
Even the bodies of the fighters, we bury them with the proper rights. We don't see any difference. Our work is humanitarian. It's bigger than saying, this is a fighter and this is a civilian.
Back in the city, teams are still pulling more bodies from the ruins of buildings destroyed by the airstrikes. In this building, a family says a loved one is still buried. These men wrestle lumps of concrete and steel to find whatever remains of the people who were at home here when the bombs hit, their tools no more advanced than what you might find in a garden shed.
More than 4,000 bodies of ISIS fighters and civilians have been discovered in the city, they tell us. In June 2017, the campaign to drive ISIS out of Raqqa was launched. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes hammered the city, and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters on the ground fought house-to-house in bloody battles.
By the time it was over, four months later, the city was destroyed. It's only by walking through neighborhoods like this that you can truly grasp the cost of the war against ISIS, and particularly in Raqqa city. This neighborhood was a residential one, these apartment buildings, in the distance, upper-middle class homes.
The reality is that we will likely never know how many civilians died in this war, how many bodies around here will never be pulled from the rubble.
Making life bearable for the survivors is Leila Mustafa's mission. She is co-chair of the Raqqa Civil Council. The people waiting in her office are in desperate need of just about every public service, from power, to running water, and housing.
As a woman, under ISIS, she would never have been allowed this kind of public leadership role. Yet, ISIS remains, hiding amid the rubble, threatening anyone who works with the government.
Leila Mustafa (through translator):
There is proof that there are sleeper cells. And there are suicide operations by ISIS against civilians. And many assassinations have happened. This is a clear indication that ISIS is still here in secret.
A few streets over, tucked away in Raqqa's oldest bookstore, men gather to find solace in friendship. Most of their children now live in Europe, but they prefer to stay here. Raqqa is their home.
Ahmed Khabour established this book shop as a teenager in 1957. Both he and store survived ISIS, but only just. Book burnings happened twice, he says, and the group didn't approve of his selection of poetry and romance.
Ahmed Khabour (through translator):
They would take this and cut it in half and throw it on the fire directly in the street in front of the book shop. They would throw them all on the fire. I told them, I am going to the mosque, so do what you want.
As I was walking on the way to the mosque, I told myself, all of Syria is destroyed. Why should I care about my books? Let them do what they want.
Here, we meet Dr. Mohammed Al Izou, the director of Raqqa's museum. He takes us there just across the road. Trouble found Dr. Al Izou before ISIS came. Their predecessors, extremist rebel groups, took the city in 2013 and came for the museum's precious antiquities.
Dr. Mohammed Al Izou (through translator):
I came in the morning to the museum and found it full of fighters. They were holding guns. When I entered, I saw the display cabinets on the ground. There was nothing in them. Everything has been stolen. I asked them what happened, and they told me to shut up.
In that moment, I felt dizzy. I couldn't see. I walked out here. When I started to walk, my legs buckled. I had a stroke. It was the shock. I have been director here for over 15 years. Taking care of this museum is like taking care of my own child. I knew all the artifacts, every single piece. I documented them all, piece by piece.
A 4,000-year-old carved stone lays discarded outside the building, too heavy to bother stealing.
Inside, the building is just a shell, holes in the walls where display cabinets were once filled with ancient gold coins, statues and pottery.
Dr. Mohammed Al Izou (through translator):
This is my life's work.
I wrote 6,000 pieces.
When I was in a town near here, they were selling the stolen tablets. I had written the number on that tablet. When I saw it, I couldn't believe it. I asked them, where is this from? And they said Raqqa. I asked where in Raqqa, and they told me to leave. They had a gun.
Once ISIS came, they destroyed the little that remained, smashing the faces from carvings, and turning the museum into a fast-food kebab restaurant.
They couldn't prize the mosaics off the walls, so they remain, damaged, but still beautiful. Dr. Izou insists on taking us upstairs, limping slowly, so he can show us all that is left there, the remnants of decades of painstaking archaeological digs thrown down like garbage.
Da'esh broken all.
ISIS destroyed this.
Four thousand years old?
They were pots.
Second millennium B.C.
Just filled up here. Someone has just gathered them up and put them in this…
All broken. All broken.
… old sarcophagus.
ISIS made it a trademark to try to erase any history that came before them. Like the rest of this city, there is now so little left to restore. Yet life here endures. Every day, falafel is fried, bread is baked, and children play in the park, a spark of hope and color against the dull gray rubble this war left behind.
But many of the city's people are still in refugee camps outside. The destruction here is too great to sustain them, the city too damaged to heal just yet.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Raqqa, Syria.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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