Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a press statement on the liberation of Raqqa, Syria, which mentioned the speed at which the city was liberated. “In January, ISIS was actively plotting terrorist attacks against our allies and our homeland in Raqqa. Nine short months later, it is out of ISIS’s control…” While this may be a relatively short period of time compared to how long it took to liberate other areas in Syria and Iraq, make no mistake: living in a battle zone for nine months seemed eternal to the civilians who live there. In addition, the misery of living under ISIS significantly predates the onset of the liberation effort. After almost four years of ISIS control, the humanitarian crisis that developed in and around Raqqa is not going to be resolved in a week or a month or even a year.
It is tempting to think that, once a city is liberated, people can return and reconstruction can begin. We saw a similar situation when Mosul, Iraq was declared free of ISIS this summer. There was indeed a sort of rush to return to east Mosul and stories abound of electrical grids up and running, the restoration of houses and buildings, and businesses opening. However, east Mosul appears to be an unusual situation, while the rest of Iraq remains largely unfit for the return of people displaced by ISIS.
As in Iraq, the humanitarian needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and of those who remained during the conflict do not suddenly disappear with the end of the fighting. The physical and logistical obstacles to providing humanitarian aid may be fewer, but in a sense, aid organizations are now playing catch-up with people they previously could not serve adequately or at all. The scale of the displacement and the difficulties in reaching the vulnerable resulted in a large population of people who will only now start receiving the assistance they need, and then only if funding for aid continues.
On Refugees International’s last mission to Iraq, our team spoke with people who wanted to go home to areas retaken from ISIS but who could not return for all sorts of reasons beyond insecurity. It quickly became clear on the ground that humanitarian assistance of all types is necessary for people to get by until there is something to return to. Raqqa’s similarities are hard not to see: a city laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), an absence of water and electrical systems, ruined hospitals and schools, and a distinct uncertainty about how exactly reconstruction can best move ahead all mean that people cannot return in the foreseeable future.
The government of Iraq created a plan for the reconstruction of Mosul that includes new infrastructure, IDP returns, and promoting coexistence. But concrete ideas for putting Raqqa back together are still limited, even though the post-ISIS conditions have been described as worse than in Mosul. How humanitarian aid will fit into international donors’ new funding and program priorities for Raqqa is unclear. As the enthusiasm for reconstruction grows, it is too easy to forget that humanitarian aid is still a desperate need. But without it, a rebuilt city is simply a place waiting for the next crisis to happen.