Tragic end to Raqqa fam­ily’s hopes

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

While thou­sands of peo­ple scram­ble to flee Syria’s bat­tle-torn Raqqa, mem­bers of the Sheikh Wais fam­ily bravely headed back in to re­cover the bod­ies of loved ones killed there. Dodg­ing shelling, air strikes and snipers, the four Syr­ian Kurds fi­nally made it back into the western district of Al-Daraiya in the ji­hadis­theld city this week. But hopes of re­triev­ing and bury­ing their rel­a­tives were shat­tered by a night­mar­ish scene.

“We found half a corpse and some hair. I only knew it was them from my sis­ter Zahraa’s gold chain,” wailed 17-year-old Amal Sheikh Wais. Her sis­ter, their brother Ab­dal­lah, his preg­nant wife Nour and the cou­ple’s 18-month-old baby all per­ished in fe­ro­cious fight­ing be­tween US-backed forces and the Is­lamic State group. “We couldn’t even find the baby’s body,” Amal told AFP, mo­ments af­ter re­turn­ing from the hor­ri­fy­ing or­deal.

Amal, an­other brother and their mother had just ar­rived at a home in west Raqqa used as a com­mand base by the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces as they bat­tle IS ji­hadists. An SDF fighter saw the fam­ily ap­proach­ing their po­si­tion along a dirt road and first as­sumed they were civil­ians es­cap­ing IS. “Ab­dal­lah! Ab­dal­lah! Ab­dal­lah!” screamed Amal’s mother, dressed in a black robe and white head­scarf. SDF fight­ers tried to con­sole them, but to no avail. “There was noth­ing left of them,” said her son solemnly, his head wrapped in a tra­di­tional white scarf em­broi­dered with col­ored flow­ers.

A fa­tal de­ci­sion

Be­fore Syria’s war erupted in 2011, Raqqa’s pop­u­la­tion was about 20 per­cent Kur­dish, ac­cord­ing to French ge­og­ra­phy ex­pert Fabrice Balanche. When IS over­ran the city in early 2014, thou­sands of the city’s mi­nor­ity res­i­dents fled. The Sheikh Wais fam­ily was one of the few Syr­ian Kur­dish clans to stay in their na­tive city. “Ab­dal­lah would get beaten a lot be­cause he wanted to smoke cig­a­rettes and re­fused to wear the style of dress” man­dated by IS, Amal re­called.

As the US-backed SDF tight­ened the noose around Raqqa ear­lier this year, IS turned parts of the city into “mil­i­tary zones” - in­clud­ing the fam­ily’s home district of Al-Rumeilah. The Sheikh Wais fam­ily fled across the city to a bak­ery where they used to work, in the western district of AlDaraiya. In June, Amal and her mother risked the har­row­ing jour­ney out of Raqqa fur­ther west to the town of Tabqa, which was cap­tured by the SDF two months ago.

But Zahraa, along with Ab­dal­lah, Nour and their tod­dler, made the fa­tal de­ci­sion to stay in Raqqa, where their sit­u­a­tion grew even more dire. “Daesh kicked them out of the bak­ery, so they were forced to camp in a nearby field with the bak­ery owner,” Amal said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for IS.

Worst fears con­firmed

Af­ter she had set­tled in Tabqa, Amal learned of ru­mors cir­cu­lat­ing on Face­book sug­gest­ing that their rel­a­tives had been killed. Her brother, who had man­aged to cross into Tur­key, heard the same news and rushed back across the bor­der to find out what had hap­pened to his fam­ily. Des­per­ate for clo­sure, the re­main­ing mem­bers of the Sheikh Wais fam­ily gath­ered last week at a camp for the dis­placed in Ain Issa, more than 50 km north of Raqqa.

Their worst fears were con­firmed by Nour’s fa­ther, who had just es­caped IS. “He went to check on them one day and found the dead bod­ies,” Amal said. “So he cov­ered them in a sheet and built up a small dirt berm around them to mark the lo­ca­tion be­fore flee­ing the city,” she told AFP. Flus­tered, she switched be­tween Ara­bic and Kur­dish and said it was still unclear ex­actly how her rel­a­tives had died.

Some re­cent es­capees said they were killed in air strikes as they were pre­par­ing to flee, but oth­ers blamed IS mor­tar fire. The United Na­tions has warned that civil­ians caught in the fight­ing or try­ing to flee face mas­sive risks. Corpses still lit­ter the streets in ar­eas re­cap­tured by the SDF. Some are of sus­pected IS fight­ers, but oth­ers - in­clud­ing those of small chil­dren - are clearly civil­ians. — AFP

RAQQA: Mem­bers of the Sheikh Wais fam­ily re­act as they ask Kur­dish fight­ers to re­cover the bod­ies of her rel­a­tives from un­der the rub­ble on July 12, 2017 dur­ing an of­fen­sive. — AFP

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