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No Longer Under ISIS Control, How Has Raqqa Changed?


We are going to visit Raqqa now. It was once the capital of ISIS territory in Syria, but it was captured nearly a year ago. NPR's Tom Bowman was in the Syrian city when he spoke to our colleague Steve Inskeep.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: I'm in the soccer stadium right in downtown Raqqa, and this is a stadium that ISIS used to jail people for executions as well - beheadings. And it's interesting that now this stadium is being rebuilt to be used for an actual soccer stadium now.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How is this city different than it was when you were there early in the year shortly after it was captured from ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, Raqqa seems to be coming back to life step-by-step. There's still a lot of rubble removal being done, but now the streets are pretty clear. Clean water is widely available now. Some electricity is coming back. And what's really interesting is a lot more shops are open. It's kind of bustling in a way.

But what's curious is the shops are open on the first floors of a lot of buildings. It's sort of a skeleton of a building and a lot of rubble just above these shops. And they say there were more than 500 homes that have been cleared of booby traps. And more and more kids are going back to school.

But there's still an enormous need for help, officials say. They need hundreds of millions of dollars from the international community just for the basics - sort of water, sewer, electricity and so forth.

INSKEEP: Are people returning home - people who had fled the city or fled Syria entirely?

BOWMAN: Yeah. A lot more people are coming home. And the interesting thing is it's straining the services now. But people are going back into their homes. You'll drive these streets that look completely desolate from the damage from the airstrikes and ISIS blowing buildings up, and you'll see a family actually walking into their homes. The city was roughly 220,000 before the war, and now it's around 160,000, but people are coming back.

INSKEEP: So there are Syrian forces aligned with the United States that control that part of the country. Do they have enough territory that it can govern itself, it can run itself, even though it is still, obviously, very separate from the parts of Syria controlled by Bashar al-Assad?

BOWMAN: They can sort of govern themselves. They're setting up local councils. They're creating sort of local security forces to patrol this area. So it really is sort of a little oasis here in Syria far away from Assad and his forces.

INSKEEP: And where does the United States fit into all of this? President Trump canceled $200 million in aid for Syrians.

BOWMAN: Right. And that was a big topic when we talked to the council. Some of them are really upset. And that aid was roughly 50 percent of the U.S. aid for returning these basic services. And some of them wonder, is the U.S. going to stay with us? Are they going to support us in the years ahead?

And what's interesting, Steve, is when the president cut that money, they had to basically stop some of the programs here in Raqqa, such as bomb removal, and also education programs. And that really worried a lot of people. And it was only $50 million from the United Arab Emirates that got these programs rolling again. Now President Trump said Saudi Arabia has pledged $100 million to the relief effort, but that money has not shown up yet.

And here's the bottom line with that, Steve. If you don't provide people with the basic needs for living, resentment will grow. People become more desperate and radicalized. And ISIS already is trying to slip back into Raqqa and other liberated areas, trying to recruit. And they still have money to pass around. So there's a concern that ISIS could continue to come back if this rebuilding effort doesn't continue.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman is in Raqqa, Syria. Thanks very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "RHYTHMIC SLEEP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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