Raqa remains in ruins one year since recapture from IS
RAQA - All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverised cityscape of Syria's Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.
Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa -- along with the roads and bridges leading to it -- remains in ruins.
To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.
They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city's outskirts.
"It's hard -- the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning," says bearded Abu Yazan.
"We want the bridge to be repaired because it's safer than water transport."
The remains of Raqa's well-known "Old Bridge" stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.
It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa's bridges to cut off the jihadists' escape routes.
The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.
But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.
"The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges," he says, to link vital areas in Raqa's countryside.
Houses, belongings long gone
Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.
The national hospital, the city's largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.
Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.
Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.
"I buried him myself with these two hands," says Muidi, 48.
"I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family," he adds.
Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighbourhood.
"The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them," he says.
Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi's hair and beard.
"How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all," he says.
Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.
But the city remains haunted by one of IS's most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.
The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa's streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.
Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighbourhoods.
"The districts in the centre of the city were more damaged -- 90 percent destroyed -- compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas," he said.
"The destruction is massive and the support isn't cutting it."
'No hope at all'
A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighbourhood.
Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.
"I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes," the 70-year-old says, tearing up.
He points to a mound of rubble nearby.
"My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us -- we're literally begging for water."
The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.
"You can't call this reconstruction -- it's all empty talk," says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.
He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.
Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.
"If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there's no hope at all," he says.