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Inside Raqqa, The Former ISIS Capital


We have an eyewitness account today from inside the former capital of ISIS. Until last fall, the Islamic State claimed the city of Raqqa in northern Syria as the center of a self-proclaimed caliphate. Today, ISIS forces have fled to the south and the east.


Yeah. Ethnic Kurdish militias captured the city with help of U.S. warplanes and special forces, and now the United States is hoping to stabilize this city.

MARTIN: This week an NPR team visited. Steve talked to our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman as he was traveling with the U.S. military.


Where are you, Tom?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, we're in Raqqa, Syria, and we just went through the downtown area. Now we're on the outskirts, next to a school. We have little kids running around. But, Steve, the downtown part of Raqqa is completely devastated. The buildings have collapsed. There are twisted cars, that used to be a vehicle borne IEDs, just exploded. Picture pictures from World War II - Dresden, Germany, complete and utter devastation. Block after block of just buildings that are completely toppled over. And it's funny, Steve, in the middle of that, you'll see a shop open, a restaurant or a bakery or something like that. So life is starting to come back to normal here, but it's going to take many, many years of rebuilding.

INSKEEP: When you try to read that devastation, of course there was aerial bombing of Raqqa including U.S. aerial bombing, was there also a lot of building-to-building combat as the city was taken from ISIS?

BOWMAN: There was a huge amount of building-to-building combat, and what the ISIS fighters would do is blow a hole in a wall inside a building to the next building, and another hole to the next building following that. And they would move through the buildings inside as opposed to going out in the street and then popping up and fighting. There are also a lot of tunnels here. You can see the openings to the tunnels. They would run through the tunnels and pop up and fight. And also the school we're at now, Steve, just in the outskirts, you can see pockmarks from bullet holes and machine gun-fire on the sides of these buildings. But again, the kids are starting to go back to school. They're trying to get back to a sense of normalcy.

INSKEEP: Is it your impression that the families from which those kids come stayed in Raqqa during the combat?

BOWMAN: You know, a lot of families did stay, and we talked to a group of young men today who are learning to remove explosive devices, IEDs. And some of them we spoke with said family members had been killed by ISIS either in the fighting or they stepped on a roadside bomb. One guy we spoke with said his brother-in-law, 36 years old with a wife and a daughter, had stepped on a roadside bomb and was killed. And what they're trying to do now is remove some of these explosive devices. There are booby-trapped houses. The doors are booby trapped. They've made bombs out of tea kettles and even baby bottles.

So it's a slow process removing all these explosive devices from houses. But, Steve, they are having about three dozen casualties every day from people trying to go back to their homes. We talked to one Army surgeon who said she's treated people for multiple losses of limbs, even children.

INSKEEP: Are there also casualties from any level of continued fighting?

BOWMAN: No. There's no continued fighting here. The fighting is to the south, around Deir ez-Zor, and then further down the Euphrates River Valley. That fighting will go on for quite some time. So what's going on here is you have American forces working with the Syrian Democratic Force. There's hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid money for humanitarian purposes. And also to do what they say are sort of basic impact projects, electric substations, also water purification plants and also refurbishing schools like the one I'm looking at right now.

So they're trying to at least bring people back into the city. They want them to go through the government to make sure that their homes are safe and that these young men who have learned how to remove explosive devices can go in and clear a house before people go back in so you don't have any more casualties.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that American forces are working with Kurdish forces on the ground. Can you give us some sense of how numerous the Americans are on the ground?

BOWMAN: Well, there are some Green Berets working with the Syrian Democratic Forces down here. They don't want us to get into how many people are here. And there are some State Department people here, USAID people. But they want us to stay away from the exact number working in this area.

INSKEEP: That's totally fine. But we get a sense of a relatively limited U.S. presence, but a real U.S. presence, including people from agencies besides the Pentagon. What does what you're seeing tell us about the progress of the war against ISIS?

BOWMAN: The progress of the war against ISIS is proceeding, but it will take some time. And one of the problems, Steve, is, as we all know, the Turks have invaded northwest Syria, going after the Kurdish fighters up there. They see them as being linked to the Kurdish separatists in Turkey. So what you're seeing now - and the Americans are really concerned about it - some of these Syrian Democratic Forces are actually heading north into Afrin to fight with their Kurdish comrades against Turkey.

INSKEEP: Tom, I want to make sure I'm absolutely clear here. Are you telling me that Turkey's conflict with the Kurds is drawing troops away from the conflict against ISIS?

BOWMAN: Yes. Hundreds of forces are leaving. We just talked to a soldier today who said he plans on leaving Raqqa and heading up to Afrin. And, here's the other thing, Steve. The Americans are saying those who remain, the Syrian Democratic Forces in the southern part of Syria, their heart isn't into this fight now. They used to, let's say, push through some roadside bombs, they'd have some casualties, and they would just keep moving and fighting. But now their heart isn't in it because they look over their shoulder and they realize their comrades up in northwest Syria are in trouble and they need their help. So they're not pushing forward. They don't have the fighting ambition that they did just a few months ago.

INSKEEP: Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.