RAQQA, Syria — Two things surprised me, as we walked into the courtyard. We heard the music first and proceeded on foot toward security cordons blocking the way for cars. Navigating our way toward the music and around the sideways-parked Hi-Lux pickup trucks, we stepped inside the gate to see what was happening.
Joy. Pure joy. Joy contagious enough to crush any tired war-observer’s cynicism. There was dancing. The spirit of possibility. The blaring music. The mix of people, men and women, young and old. The place.
This is Raqqa today. That was the first surprise.
The second surprise was at what we didn’t see: foreigners. I couldn’t find more than a handful of foreigners, and if there were many other Americans, I sure didn’t see them. I couldn’t even spot any of the U.S. forces I knew were based in the region. Not a single pair of wrap-around glasses in sight, if things went awry. To be clear, I scanned and saw lots of security forces: at the doorway, by the stage, standing atop rooftops all around us, walking about on the streets out front. But none of them looked like they had traveled from thousands of miles away to be there as security.
These folks belonged to the city.
We had arrived that morning, my fixer and I, to attend the opening of the Raqqa Women’s Council. It is a council for and by women on streets where ISIS once bought and sold them, in a city held until last November by violent extremists who made the sexual enslavement of women central to their hall of horrors.
Quite honestly, I expected little from the event. Over the years, spending time in and around the post-9/11 conflicts, I had become accustomed to attending such public gatherings to celebrate one council or another. Often times they felt like surface-level exercises or public relations sessions created by and for foreigners and secured by foreigners as well. The real stories of what was happening in women’s lives was often far from those more public-facing events, in far less-fancy rooms filled by local leaders pushing for change in their communities.
This was different. And it is a testament to both the spirit of the people of Raqqa and the work of the local security forces now securing the area who themselves are secured by America’s troop presence. What is missing is an international community ready to invest dollars in rebuilding the city while the war still grinds on in other parts of the country. Those dollars are critical to ensuring that the gains now being made can be built upon and multiplied. But that was not what this day was about. This day was about a new start.
We went to this event to follow up on a previous visit that showed signs of progress for women here. In April, we had visited a local women’s council on a side street in Raqqa and felt surprise then, too, at what we saw. There sat a group of women from around a neighborhood just coming back to life who had come together to talk about what they wanted for their family’s and city’s futures. One woman’s husband had been taken by ISIS more than three years earlier and disappeared. I spent an entire morning with the women, interrupting their meeting with my questions. I wanted to see more.
So, four months later — and two days before the blaring music at the Council’s opening — we stopped in to see the building in the center of Raqqa where the new Women’s Council would be headquartered. Two women, soaked with water and sweat from cleaning the building in the intensity of the over 90-degree heat, came to the door to greet us. Other women we met, busy with preparations for the opening celebrations, stopped their work for a moment to share their stories.
“ISIS killed three of my husband’s relatives,” said Juman, a Women’s Council member. “Those men had a lot of children we care for. We fled Raqqa and my husband joined the (Syrian Democratic Forces). Later I joined the Tal-Abyad women’s council.”
“I saw a woman watch her husband being beheaded by ISIS in Naim Square,” Juman said. “Whatever we say about ISIS, it isn’t enough.”
I asked Juman if she had her husband’s support in the work she was doing now. She nodded vigorously.
“I am here with my husband and my father’s support,” Juman says. Before ISIS, before the Women’s Council, she had never held a role outside her home. “I don’t think that would have happened without ISIS.”
Reem, another Women’s Council member from Raqqa, studied agricultural engineering at university in the city before ISIS sent her fleeing to safety indoors. “My family was terrified,” she said, standing near me but not sweating at all despite the heat and sweat tearing down my brow. “We wouldn’t even go outside.”
One of her friends was killed by ISIS and a neighbor of hers was arrested, Reem tells us. She did not recognize Raqqa when she first came back from Tabqa, the town to which her family fled in August 2017 during the heaviest of the U.S.-backed SDF forces fight to rout ISIS from Raqqa.
“In January, there was rubble everywhere, bodies in the street, IEDs, no water, no electricity,” Reem says. “It was a ghost city.”
Slowly, she says, things have changed. She has changed. More and more people are returning. And she is at the Women’s Council setting out to provide economic opportunities for women.
“There is a big difference,” she says of the energy in her city now compared to when she first returned eight months ago, speaking in a rush of words about her new role. “My parents are encouraging me to be part of this Council, that is important; we need to be part of building our own country, and I am very eager.”
Her work, she says, is critical. Raqqa is now home to a “huge number of widows.” She says the city needs “everything:” reconstruction, rebuilding, investment. And it needs women who can work and contribute to their families.
“The economy is most important,” Reem said. “When you have a strong economy, you can build your country.”
I mention that this whole thing — the women’s council, the push to include women in the Raqqa Civil Council now serving as the administrative lead for Raqqa— is often dismissed outside the region as a Kurdish project which is failing Arabs. Does she agree? Does she feel out of place as an Arab?
She, like nearly every Arab woman in Raqqa to whom I have posed this question, takes umbrage at the premise.
“It is not true it is a Kurdish project,” Reed says. “If it were a Kurdish project, what would I be doing here? This is not just for Kurds or Arabs, but also for Assyrians and Turkmen.”
And so, two days later, as we listened to the speeches, watched the dancing, heard the music blare and talked to women from Raqqa who joined the local security forces, we took pictures, trying to capture the moment and to make sense of what it meant. The instant of possibility in a city that has seen too much. The promise of little ones stepping out to figure out what all the noise was about. And the reality that while the world has not caught up with Raqqa, has yet to invest in the work now underway, the city is doing its best to look forward. To start once more. And that the international community could learn a lot simply by seeing its strength in action.
Mustafa Alali contributed to this report.