Amnesty International published a new report on the devastating toll suffered by civilians trapped in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa during the four-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The 70-page report, "War of Annihilation," investigated 42 airstrike locations, reviewed satellite imagery, interviewed 112 witnesses and survivors during the last few months of the battle, and documented the stories of four families.
"What Amnesty International researchers did is they went into the city, interviewed people and found four specific families who lost dozens of their members in airstrikes, so they would have a better sense of what the experience was like for people living there," Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA, told VOA.
The "war of annihilation" against IS began when U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the acceleration of operations against IS in May 2017.
"Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We are not going to allow them to do so. We are going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate," Mattis said at the time.
The battle to liberate Raqqa, code-named the Wrath of Euphrates, started in June 2017 and ended with the city's recapture in October, with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground.
Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria freed about 7.7 million people and 98 percent of the area previously controlled by IS, the coalition said in April.
Amnesty International described the city during the fighting as a deadly labyrinth trapping civilians trying to flee. IS used civilians as human shields, preventing many from leaving the city.
"Urban combat in residential areas presents inherent challenges. These challenges were exacerbated in Raqqa by IS's determination to operate amongst the civilian population and to use civilians as human shields," the report said.
The Hashish family was among four interviewed by Amnesty. Munira Hashish lost 18 members of her family between July and August 2017. She told Amnesty researchers that when they tried to escape the city, IS militants arrested them and forced them to stay.
"We had tried to escape the city but couldn't manage it. About five days after Eid [June 30-July 1, 2017], we tried to flee across the river, but Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS] caught us. They beat the men very badly and detained me and the other women in a house for a day before they let us go," Hashish told Amnesty.
As the effort to liberate the city ramped up, so did the numbers of civilians killed in the airstrikes.
The coalition conducted a total of 29,254 airstrikes between August 2014 and the end of March 2018, the coalition said in a statement in April. A coalition review found the total number of civilian casualties during this period was 2,135.
The way forward
Despite the vast damage to infrastructure and an absence of public services, about 132,000 civilians have returned to Raqqa since October 2017, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) reported in May.
Raqqa Civil Council, a civil entity established to restore stability and services to the city, is working with special teams that are interviewing civilians and gathering evidence to estimate losses and provide aid and compensation to civilians.
"With the support from the coalition and United Nations, we are currently working to restore a normal life so all the displaced can return back," Mustafa Abdi, a journalist working with Raqqa Civil Council, told VOA.
Amnesty's Eviatar said as the battle against IS continues, it is important for the U.S.-led coalition to take into account the large-scale destruction caused by the relentless bombardment of the city, as well as secure the city and provide access to humanitarian aid.
"The coalition needs to participate in peace-building and reconstruction efforts to help create a more stable society," Eviatar said.