Amnesty International fear hundreds of civilians may have been killed or injured since the offensive was launched on June 6 to take back the “capital” and main stronghold of the terrorist group, Islamic State (IS).
Victims and witnesses have told reporters of how they face Islamic State’s hidden vehicles and snipers who target anyone attempting to flee. They also spoke of the constant barrage of gunfire and air strikes carried out by coalition forces directed by the US, fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, are also bombing civilians in villages and camps south of the river and have also used cluster bombs which are banned by international law.
The number of civilians still trapped in the city of Raqqa remains unknown. The UN estimates the figure to be between 10,000 and 50,000. Many, if not most, are being detained and used as human shields in the old town and other neighbourhoods controlled by IS.
Many of the civilians who were able leave the city claimed that the constant and often imprecise attacks resulted in a sharp rise in civilian casualties over recent weeks and months. Daraiya, to the west of the city centre, is one of the neighbourhoods which was heavily bombed by coalition forces, particularly between 8 – 10 June. “It was hell – the neighbourhood was struck by numerous shells. The residents didn’t know what to do to survive. Some ran from one place to another and ended up getting bombed. Didn’t the coalition know that the area was full of civilians? We were trapped there because Daesh (IS) wouldn’t allow us to leave.”
IS have implemented various strategies to prevent civilians from fleeing Raqqa, such as using civilians as human shields. IS fighters have positioned landmines and hidden vehicles along routes that lead to ways out of the city. They have also set up control posts situated around the town to restrict movement. From these posts, they shoot at anyone who attempts to escape. Mahmouda – a resident who fled the Daraiya neighbourhood gave the following account: “It was a terrible situation… IS wouldn’t let us leave. We had no food and no electricity. There were many spies working for the religious police. We were surrounded by snipers. If you were shot by a sniper, you would die at home – there were no doctors around.”
Reem, another resident of the Daraiya neighbourhood, explained that IS fighters started allowing people to stay within the walls of the old town where they are meant to take refuge: “They [IS] knocked on our doors and told us we had half an hour to get ourselves to the old town. If we refused, they accused you of being on the enemy’s side and then you were as good as dead.”