Ousted from Raqa, IS jihadists can still kill
RAQA - Dozens of civilians at a checkpoint into Raqa were pleading to be let through to inspect their homes when an explosion ripped through the air: one resident had slipped in.
The man had managed to reach his nearby neighbourhood despite a clear ban on civilian entry into the devastated Syrian city and triggered an explosive device left behind by the Islamic State group.
Ambulances and fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who retook Raqa this month screeched past the panicked civilians at the checkpoint on the city's western edge.
The victim's brother, who snuck into Raqa with him, survived the blast unscathed but his face was livid with shock.
"My brother and I went to inspect our ceramics workshop. A mine went off and he died," he said, as people tended to him in the Al-Dariya neighbourhood.
Next to a pile of rubble and mangled iron, his dead brother lay on his side, still straddling his motorbike and his face covered in white dust. A huge tarp bag was still strapped to the rack.
The US-backed SDF took full control of Raqa on October 17, wrapping up an operation that lasted more than four months to capture a city that had been the inner sanctum of IS's now moribund "caliphate".
Hundreds of thousands of people fled the city since 2014 and by the time the SDF retook it, Raqa had become a ghost town of collapsed buildings.
The jihadists used Raqa as a hub from which they organised their administration and projected power for more than three years.
Routed IS fighters are now defending their last redoubts further down the Euphrates Valley and along the border with Iraq but the bombs they left behind are still killing people.
The team of SDF medics that morning were not retrieving their first victim of the week: at least 14 other people, including nine civilians, were killed since the fighting ended.
- Ignoring risks -
The SDF has issued clear instructions making Raqa off-limits but gaggles of civilians wait every day at the city gates for a chance to look for what might be left of their homes.
Despite the heavy human toll that IS's booby traps, unexploded roadside bombs and other mines are taking, a group waited on the edge of the western neighbourhood of Sabahiya, trying to convince SDF fighters to let them through.
Men sat patiently on the saddles of their motorbikes, while women sat looking expectantly towards the city's craggy, levelled skyline as children played around them.
The civilians seemed determined to ignore the warnings and see their homes but the SDF was having none of it.
"One man came from Kobane to see his house, a mine exploded and we just finished organising his burial," a young Kurdish fighter said, raising his voice as residents implored him to open the road.
"We've been telling you not to go in, there are mines everywhere but you still sneak in," the young fighter shouted, pumping his upturned palms in annoyed disbelief.
Umm Abdel Rahman cried because she was barred from returning to her neighbourhood of Al-Rumaniya, in western Raqa.
"My house is over there, all my memories are there, the pictures of my wedding," the young lady said, tears running down her cheeks. She has not heard from her husband in almost three weeks.
Nearby, another young woman who gave her name as Amina said both her brothers had been missing for four days.
"They had gone to our house in Al-Dariya and they never came back. I came to find them," she said. "My younger brother already lost a foot in a landmine blast."
A chubby-cheeked baby saddled on her hip, Amina said she was bent on entering Raqa regardless. "Even if it kills me, I will go in to find my brothers."