As Fighting Continues in Syria, Raqqa Begins to Rebuild
28 February 2018
This is a story about our mission to Raqqa, Syria, but first we want to give the context of what is happening now in Syria. Syria is in its seventh year of civil war; 500,000 people have been killed and over 11,000,000 displaced (over 6,000,000 internally and over 5,000,000 refugees have fled the country). And the fighting escalates: Assad’s regime continues to pound the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, Idlib and other resistance-held areas.This past week alone, over 500 civilians have been killed in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and earlier in February a combined regime and Russian mercenary force launched an attack against the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) – they were defeated by the SDF forces with US air support. At the same time, in January, the Turkish Army, along with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who in this area are reportedly composed of radical Muslim groups and some remnants of ISIS, launched an air and ground campaign against the town and area of Afrin, one of the only peaceful areas of Syria. The Kurds have kept ISIS at bay all through the war and Afrin had become a refuge for thousands of fleeing Kurds and Arabs of different groups and faiths. Now, the joint Turkish-FSA attacks have killed over 200 civilians, and Turkey has increased its airstrikes.
The resistance to the Syrian dictatorship of Assad is a complex mix of pro-democracy, radical Islamist, Arab tribal and Kurd forces, some of which are also against each other. Russia and Iran support the Assad regime and attack the resistance, even though the US supports the SDF who are led by the Kurds. These Syrian Kurds’ attempt at a democratic and egalitarian society, freedom for women and a separation of church and state have won them friends in the west and among many other Kurds. They have also been the most effective force against ISIS in Syria and have been good allies and so have US support. The Syrian regime of Assad views the Kurds as a threat to their power, but have sent pro-Assad militias to help them against Turk forces in Afrin. Turkey sees the Kurds as a serious threat due to an ongoing Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, which they feel will be supported by Syrian Kurds. While the U.S. stands with the Kurds and is against the Assad regime, Turkey, a NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds, and pro-Assad militias are joining the Kurds against the Turks. All this makes Syria a complex and difficult place to engage and help. In the midst of this we believe that God will show the best way for all of us and we go in the power of God’s love. As new fronts and fighting develop, the people caught in the middle of it all are trying to rebuild in cities like Raqqa, newly liberated from ISIS in October 2017. We sent medical supplies to Afrin to help the people under attack there and did children’s and relief programs in Raqqa, Tabqa, Kobane, and Membij, areas liberated by the Syrian Democratic Front (the Kurd-led force).”
Raqqa is a city of mixed Arab and Kurd population on the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, now indelibly marked by the rise of ISIS in its midst. It was here that ISIS gathered their strength in 2014 and launched their mad rush across the Syrian desert and into Iraq, taking Mosul and moving unchecked nearly to Baghdad. And it was here that ISIS staged their last stand, after the furious fighting in Mosul and finally being pushed out of Iraq – here was the scene of their last battle. They lost, but at great cost to the city and the people. Driving through, we pass block after city block of nearly unbroken destruction.
The church in the middle of the city is part of the wreckage. We stop here; it is a good place to start from, to pray from, as we have come to bear witness to the great suffering and dark evil wreaked by ISIS. Sky, Jared and Peter construct a makeshift cross from broken metal pieces and duct tape, erecting it in a pile of rubble at the back of the church’s entrance. Sahale brings her guitar in and sings “O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and ‘Be Thou My Vision.’ She explains, “I wanted to help bring God back to this place.” Later she and Bashir sing ‘Jesus Set Me Free’ in Arabic and our hearts fill with love; it feels, indeed, that God is still here, right in the middle of the rubble.
From the church we go to the soccer arena in the middle of the city. ISIS used this as a prison and before walking out onto the field, we tour the underground rooms that were used as prison cells and torture chambers. One of our guides was a prisoner himself and shows us where the prisoners were held, how they were tied up, hung from their wrists, some kept for two years without seeing a single person, food just thrown in to them. Thousands of spent bullet casings still litter the floor; the walls are covered with the scrawls of desperate people leaving a last record of their existence, names and dates left behind by those wanting to be remembered. “God help me,” in Arabic, and a picture of chained hands, was in one of the cells.
We walk out into the center of the arena, the open field surrounded by empty stands with twisted metal beams rearing over them and torn roofing dangling. On one end of the field, behind where the goal would have been, is a large metal cage. One of our guides is a local woman; she chokes up, and her clipped narration stalls for a minute before she describes how captured women, many of them Yazidi women from Sinjar, were held here and sold here, to crowds of men who gathered in this arena to look them over, make a selection and make a purchase. Suuzanne gives her a silent hug; we pray together for God’s love to bring redemption and new life to this place. As we leave, Dave hugs our guide who had been a prisoner here; both begin to cry. As we leave the city, we stop and pray at Naeem Square, the roundabout in the center of the city that ISIS had used for many public executions. Formerly a site where the militants had wielded power, it was now dusty and empty, surrounded by both destroyed buildings and bustling reconstruction.
Outside of Raqqa we visit an IDP camp of villagers who refused to support ISIS; the militants then blew up every home in the village. The people now live in tents in the middle of farmland. They ask us for a water pump and we promise to help. A couple of days later we return to do a GLC program, having fun with these farm kids, singing and teaching abundant life for body and soul. They are wilder, both more desperate and less schooled than many of the kids we’ve met elsewhere. We give out the gifts we have, GLC bracelets and Lions and Lambs toys from All Things Possible ministries. The kids love them and beg for more.
Here there is little access to medical care; Dave pulls teeth and Sky provides some basic wound care for those who ask. One young girl is brought who stepped on an IED several months ago and has serious injuries to both her legs. She had been to a hospital and they had done surgery and applied an external fixator to both legs. But her wounds had become badly infected; without treatment they were likely to go septic soon. Sky cleans the wounds as well as he can and we give them funds to go to the nearest hospital.
Bashir is our Syrian coordinator and Christian brother; it is on his heart to do a program in the middle of Raqqa, to shine a light in the middle of what had been the center of ISIS darkness. So the next day we go back to the city. We again drive through the blocks of destruction – but not just destruction: also activity. People are moving back, rebuilding and reclaiming their city. We drive into a neighborhood of narrow streets and walled houses. Children on the street know something is up and start chasing us on foot. At every turn we pick up a new follower and by the time we arrive to our program spot at the neighborhood council office, we have a group of about 75 gathered. It grows as we commence our program. Singing, hygiene teaching, Good Samaritan play and the gospel bracelet – Bashir is part translator, part leader and part pied-piper, teaching, entertaining and holding the kids’ attention. They are attentive, excited and responsive. Here we give Reload Love and GLC shirts, bracelets and a snack. To moms, dads and other adults who also show up, we give Jesus films, audio Bibles, and printed Bibles, all in Arabic. The program ends and we shake hands with the local neighborhood leaders, thanking them for their help in organizing and crowd control. We pile into our vehicles and drive out, chased by a group of laughing children.
And so we came to bear witness to suffering and destruction, to the work of ISIS. But we were also gifted to witness the resilience of the people of Raqqa. There is much rebuilding to be done, of buildings, and of hearts and lives. But, as we tell the children in our program – God’s love is stronger than any hate and fear. We may be small – the power of the enemy and the destruction he has wreaked may be big – but God is bigger. Thanks for praying for these people.