Concerted efforts continue to rebuild the Syrian city of Raqqa, nearly two years after it was recaptured from the Islamic State (IS) terror group. And while these efforts mostly focus on essential services in the city, several activist groups are trying to take on something different by restoring parks, playgrounds and public squares.
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Raqqa from IS in October 2017.
During the 3-month-long battle, however, the city’s infrastructure was mostly destroyed, including dozens of public squares and parks that once were used by the terror group for the public execution of dissidents.
Activists who have taken on the mission to reconstruct these facilities say they are particularly focused on projects that could change the face of the city after years of horror under IS rule.
Ahed al-Hendi, head of the Syrian Foundation for Sustainable Development, a local organization that has been involved in several reconstruction projects in Raqqa, says that the idea behind supporting these efforts is to turn the former de facto capital of IS’ self-styled caliphate into a bright and colorful city.
“Under IS rule, only one color was prevalent and allowed and that was black,” he told VOA. “The colors we use now while repairing these parks represent diversity and tolerance.”
Celebrating life after IS
During its reign, IS imposed strict social codes on the local population in Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.
Women in particular were required to wear black dresses covering their entire bodies and faces. Those who disobeyed such rules were given harsh punishments, including imprisonment and flogging.
IS turned also the once bustling al-Naeem Square in downtown Raqqa into a major spot to carry out public executions that terrorized communities who lived under the group’s brutal rule in Syria and Iraq.
“What we are trying to do is to turn all these zones that once symbolized death into places that celebrate life to the fullest,” al-Hendi said.
Aslan Mamo, the lead artist who undertook the revamping of Raqqa parks, says that such projects bring hope and joy for the local population in Raqqa.
“We can’t just rebuild for the sake of rebuilding. We have to put an aesthetic touch on everything we build from now on, because IS destroyed people from inside and tried to kill their taste for beauty,” he said.
He told VOA that they have also done similar works at sport fields, elementary schools and other facilities in the city.
While many displaced people have already returned to their homes in Raqqa after its liberation from IS, experts charge that rebuilding modern facilities would entice more people to consider coming back into the city in the future.
“Restoring public services such as parks and recreational centers is a key factor of stabilizing the city,” said Khaled al-‘Abo, a local civil engineer who has been helping rebuild several parks in Raqqa.
He said in a phone interview with VOA that his team’s objective is to rebuild every park in the city that has been destroyed or used by IS for “evil purposes.”
According to activists, the initiative has been entirely funded the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a U.S federal government entity that is responsible for providing assistance to communities in need around the world.
The United States has been a major contributor to the reconstruction of Raqqa and other cities devastated by the war against IS.
In March of this year, the U.S. announced more than $397 million in additional assistance for Syria, including areas recently liberated from IS.
With this amount, the U.S. humanitarian assistance, in response to the Syrian crisis, reached more than $9.5 billion since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011.
In Raqqa, residents hope that such initiatives would encourage other international donors to invest more in rebuilding their city.
“With no prospects of self-funding at the moment, only international assistance can help bring back some sense of normalcy to this city,” said Hamoud al-Salih, a 39-year-old resident of Raqqa.