Syria: thousands of civilians in Raqqa trapped by three-way fighting - new report

Use the slider below to see satellite imagery showing devastation in Raqqa - June/July 2017

Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa in Syria are coming under fire from three different sides, said Amnesty International in a new report today (24 August).

Amnesty’s 36-page report - ‘I Won’t Forget This Carnage’: Civilians Trapped in the Battle for Raqqa, Syriashows how beleaguered civilians in Raqqa are being used as human shields by ISIS fighters, while also facing deadly airstrikes from US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group as well as airstrikes from Russian-backed Syrian forces attacking villages and camps for displaced people south of the city.

Amnesty’s report documents how hundreds of civilians have already been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture Islamic State’s “capital” and main stronghold, and Amnesty is calling on warring parties to prioritise civilian protection and create safe ways for civilians to flee the fighting.

It is unknown how many civilians remain trapped inside Raqqa, with UN estimates ranging from 10,000 to 50,000. Many, possibly most, are believed to be held as human shields in the Old City and other ISIS-controlled areas.

Civilians in Raqqa are in grave danger from the intense artillery shelling and - more limited - airstrikes by the coalition forces, with attacks being carried out on the basis of coordinates provided by SDF forces on the ground. Numerous recent escapees have told Amnesty how these relentless and often imprecise attacks have resulted in a surge of civilian casualties in recent weeks. Daraiya, west of Raqqa’s city centre, is one area that was heavily bombarded by coalition forces, including from 8-10 June.

One Daraiya resident said:

“It was hell, many shells struck the area. Residents did not know how to save themselves. Some people ran from one place to another … only to be bombed there. Didn’t the SDF and the coalition know that the place was full of civilians? We were stuck there … because Daesh didn’t let us leave.”

Another person from Daraiya described how a dozen shells struck a residential area of single-storey houses on 10 June, killing at least 12 people across several homes, including a 75-year-old man and an 18-month-old baby:

“The shells struck one house after the other. It was indescribable, it was like the end of the world - the noise, people screaming. I [will never] forget this carnage.”

ISIS have been using multiple tactics to prevent civilians from fleeing Raqqa - including laying landmines and booby traps along exit routes, setting up checkpoints around the city to restrict movement, and shooting at those trying to escape.

Mahmouda, a resident who fled the Daraiya area, told Amnesty:

“It was a terrible situation … ISIS wouldn’t let us leave. We had no food, no electricity. There were lots of spies for the religious police. They besieged us with snipers. If you get hit by a sniper, you die in your house. There were no doctors.”

Reem, also from Daraiya, explained how ISIS fighters began forcing people to move within the walls of the Old City, where they are expected to make a final stand:

“They came to knock on our door and told us we had half an hour to get to the Old City. If you refused they accused you of being a PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] agent and threatened to take you to the prison.”

Donatella Rovera, a Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International who led the on-the-ground investigation, said:

“As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides.

“Knowing that ISIS use civilians as human shields, SDF and US forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes.

“Things will only get more dangerous as the battle reaches its final stages in the city centre.

“Those besieged in Raqqa face horrific brutality at the hands of ISIS - of that there is no doubt. But violations by ISIS do not lessen the international legal obligations of other warring parties to protect civilians.”

Bombing boats on the Euphrates

Survivors also told Amnesty that coalition forces have been targeting boats crossing the Euphrates River, one of the only viable escape routes for civilians trying to flee the city. On 2 July, the coalition commander, US Lt Gen Stephen J Townsend, told the New York Times: “We shoot every boat we find.”

Coalition forces also dropped leaflets in March, warning: “Daesh is using boats and ferries to transport weapons and fighters - do not use ferries and boats, airstrikes are coming.”

Donatella Rovera said:

“Crossing the river has been a key escape route for civilians fleeing the conflict in Raqqa, so striking ‘every boat’ - on the erroneous assumption that any boat will be carrying ISIS fighters or weapons - is indiscriminate and prohibited by the laws of war.”

Russia and Syria using cluster bombs

While civilians in Raqqa have been bearing the brunt of the fighting, villagers in ISIS-controlled areas south of the Euphrates have faced a separate onslaught after Russian-backed Syrian government forces launched indiscriminate airstrikes in the second half of July, killing at least 18 civilians and injuring many more. Survivors have given detailed descriptions of the strikes to Amnesty indicating that Syrian government forces dropped internationally-banned cluster munitions as well as unguided bombs on areas where civilians displaced by the conflict were sheltering in makeshift camps along irrigation canals near the Euphrates.

Meanwhile, several eyewitnesses also told Amnesty about Russian forces dropping four cluster bombs on Sabkha Camp on 23 July, killing around ten civilians, among them an 18-month-old baby. Thirty others were injured. Zahra al-Mula, who lost four relatives in the attack, said:

“We know they were cluster bombs because it was not one big explosion in one place; there were many small explosions over a very large area. The explosions set the tents on fire, so we lost everything.”

The next day, more cluster bombs were fired at Shuraiyda camp, a mile or so to the east. Amnesty visited survivors at a local hospital, including Usama, a 14-year-old boy who sustained massive injuries to the abdomen and limbs. He lost seven relatives in the attack.

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