In IS-held Raqa, parched civil­ians risk lives for wa­ter

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Syria’s Raqa once thrived on the banks of the gush­ing Euphrates River, but dire short­ages in the Is­lamic State group strong­hold are forc­ing des­per­ate civil­ians to risk their lives for wa­ter. The north­ern city has been with­out steady run­ning wa­ter for sev­eral weeks af­ter dam­age to pipe­lines by heavy bom­bard­ment, in­clud­ing sus­pected strikes by the US-led coali­tion. Civil­ians de­hy­drated by the blis­ter­ing sum­mer heat are ven­tur­ing out to the Euphrates and makeshift wells around the city.

But as fight­ing be­tween IS and ad­vanc­ing US-backed forces ramps up, that jour­ney can be life-threat­en­ing. “I went to pump wa­ter from a well in the city’s south, close to the river,” said Karim, an ac­tivist with the Raqqa24 net­work who re­mains in­side the city. He spoke to AFP us­ing a pseu­do­nym for fear of be­ing tar­geted by IS, which still con­trols most of Raqa. The ji­hadists had sealed the street be­tween the south­ern district and the Euphrates, so he and other men gath­ered around a bore­hole drilled by a res­i­dent. “We were able to get wa­ter for an hour, but then we had to run away be­cause of ar­tillery fire.

A shell landed just 50 me­ters away from me,” he said. He de­scribed a hellish scene: fam­i­lies lug­ging jerry cans through Raqa’s streets, sud­denly scram­bling for cover from in­com­ing mor­tar fire and air strikes. Civil­ians who man­aged to es­cape Raqa have also told AFP they came un­der IS sniper fire as they tried to fill up buck­ets from the Euphrates. With tem­per­a­tures reach­ing a scorch­ing 46 de­grees Cel­sius (114 Fahren­heit), Karim said Raqa res­i­dents are caught be­tween their extreme thirst and the risky jour­ney to quench it. “The short­ages are killing us. Cold wa­ter is the stuff of dreams.”

‘Dy­ing of thirst’

Since IS over­ran Raqa in 2014, the city has be­come syn­ony­mous with the group’s hor­rific prac­tices, in­clud­ing pub­lic be­head­ings. With help from the USled coali­tion, an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers called the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces is wag­ing a fierce as­sault to oust IS from the city. Years ago, Raqa ben­e­fited from its prime lo­ca­tion in the fer­tile river val­ley, as well as from nearby hy­dro-elec­tric dams that gen­er­ated power for much of Syria.

That makes the cur­rent wa­ter short­ages par­tic­u­larly painful, said ac­tivist col­lec­tive Raqqa Is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Si­lently (RBSS). “The deep­est irony lies in the fact that this city on the bank of the boun­ti­ful Euphrates River is cur­rently dy­ing of thirst,” said the group, whose mem­bers pub­lish news from ac­tivists in­side the city. Ac­cord­ing to RBSS, at least 27 peo­ple have been killed by coali­tion air strikes in re­cent weeks as they tried to reach the Euphrates or nearby wells for wa­ter. “My un­cle and seven chil­dren were killed about two weeks ago as he was head­ing to a school near the city cen­tre where there was a well,” said RBSS co-founder Ab­dalaziz Al-Hamza. And those who man­age to suc­cess­fully draw wa­ter from the Euphrates also face health risks. The UN warned ear­lier this month that Euphrates River wa­ter was po­ten­tially “un­fit for con­sump­tion” and car­ried “the risk of wa­ter-borne dis­eases”. “Raqa’s pop­u­la­tion is us­ing the wa­ter for ev­ery­thing-show­ers, drink­ing, ev­ery­thing,” said RBSS ac­tivist Hus­sam Eesa. “But it isn’t clean, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of all the (mor­tar) shells and corpses that are in it,” Eesa said.

RBSS says it has doc­u­mented symp­toms of wa­ter-borne dis­eases among those who are drink­ing the river wa­ter, in­clud­ing fever and loss of con­scious­ness that the group fears could point to cholera. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has also doc­u­mented one child who was par­a­lyzed in Raqa by a strain of po­lio that orig­i­nates from a vac­cine car­ry­ing small amounts of weak­ened but live virus. Oral po­lio vac­cine (OPV) repli­cates in the gut and can be passed to oth­ers through fae­cal-con­tam­i­nated wa­ter-mean­ing it won’t hurt the vac­ci­nated in­di­vid­ual, but could in­fect their neigh­bors in places where hy­giene and im­mu­niza­tion lev­els are low.

— AFP

ALEPPO: Dis­placed Syr­i­ans who fled with their fam­i­lies Is­lamic State con­trolled ar­eas in Raqa, Deir Ez­zor and Mayadeen gather at Aleppo’s bus sta­tion of Ra­mussa.

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