Photo: What Victory Over ISIS Looks Like
The declarations of victory played out across Iraq and Syria: The long campaigns to retake city after city from Islamic State militants had come to an end.
But the hard-won battles left vast destruction in their wake, and the celebrations from atop the rubble of once-grand buildings are ringing hollow for hundreds of thousands of displaced residents.
Iraqis and Syrians return to cities that are ghosts of their former glory, lacking the infrastructure for normal life to begin again. Now they must grapple with how to rebuild.
The ousting of Islamic State militants this week from Raqqa was filled with symbolism. Raqqa was the de facto capital of the militants’ self-declared caliphate, and now it has fallen from their grasp.
But there wasn’t much city left to save.
While the full extent of the damage is still being assessed, drone footage and satellite images reveal mile after mile of damaged buildings, rubble-filled streets and destroyed landmarks.
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Raqqa was once home to 300,000 people, but tens of thousands fled when the militants solidified control of the city in early 2014 and began staging public executions of those who ran afoul of their strict interpretation of Islam. By the dwindling days of the group’s rule, only about 25,000 residents remained.
At least 1,000 civilians were killed in the airstrikes, according to tallies by local activists and international monitors. American officials put the civilian casualties much lower, and say coalition strikes have killed at least 735 civilians in Iraq and Syria since operations against the Islamic State there began in 2014.
Five months of American-led airstrikes left conditions in the city dire, knocking out water and electricity. American officials have promised to help bring back basic services, but the scale of the damage is clear.
When soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebel militias, raised their yellow flags in one of Raqqa’s central junctions this week, all that was left of the buildings that once surrounded it were bombed-out shells.
Similar scenes played out in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
Backed by American-led coalition airstrikes, Iraq government forces celebrated their recapture of the city in July. But Mosul’s recovery is a tale of two cities.
In the eastern portion, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the population that fled during initial fighting over the city have already returned to their homes. But nine months of fighting in the west of Mosul, where militants holed up during their final stand, left the area virtually uninhabitable.
From medical centers to centuries-old mosques, major structures were reduced to rubble and whole neighborhoods wiped off the map. Some fell at the hands of militants who demolished infrastructure as the Iraqi military moved in, including the iconic Al Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret, and some were casualties of coalition airstrikes. Before the Islamic State captured the city, Mosul was home to 1.1 million people. United Nations officials estimate that just restoring basic services there could cost more than $1 billion.
Leila Jane Nassif, the United Nations refugee agency’s assistant representative in Iraq, said the damage in the western part of the city had left hundreds of thousands of people displaced. It is unclear when they will be able to return.
“It will take time for the infrastructure to be in place and for people to be able to rebuild their lives there with so much housing that has been damaged,” Ms. Nassif said in a telephone interview.
When Islamic State militants were pushed from Ramadi, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, it was a ruin. The group had entrenched itself in the city, occupying homes, digging tunnels and laying explosives.
By the time the group was driven out in January 2016, Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, had been bombarded by coalition airstrikes for months. And ISIS fighters blew up bridges as they fled.
Ms. Nassif said the scale of the devastation in some formerly occupied cities means recovery will not just involve helping individual families rebuild. There must to be a coordinated plan to restore basic services to those homes.
“If you have to go back and rebuild roads and sewer systems and put in utilities and so on, that is going to take a major effort by the government,” Ms. Nassif said.
Iraq’s government, however, is ill-equipped to deal with the destruction. The United Nations Funding Facility for Stabilization has been helping in Falluja and Ramadi. Its plan to rebuild 30,000 homes began over the summer and will cost at least $70 million, and take 18 months.
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