One year after ISIS expelled, thousands of displaced Syrians brace for winter in tents

Boys are seen on a damaged building in Raqqa, Syria, on Oct 12, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

AIN ISSA, SYRIA (AFP) - As dust whips up around them, families from Syria's Raqqa, still homeless a year after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group was expelled from their city, ready their tents for the coming winter

Tens of thousands fled their homes in and around Raqqa in the months that led up to United States-backed forces ousting the militants from the northern city in October 2017.

One year on, many have returned, but thousands of others from destroyed homes remain at a camp for the displaced in Ain Issa, around 50km north of the ravaged city.

Families still reside in flimsy white tents, often with brightly coloured laundry slung out to dry on their guy ropes.

"We have no means to rebuild our home. If we did, we wouldn't have stayed here," said Ms Batul Sbaka, sitting inside a tent with two children on her lap.

The 32-year-old mother said she returned to see her home in Raqqa after she had heard the militants had been evicted.

"When I saw my house, I screamed. We used to have two rooms and a kitchen. It was all destroyed," she said.

"At least here we have bread and water - and a tent for shelter," said Ms Sbaka, a black scarf dotted with pink flowers wrapped around her face.

Around the tent where she lives, the camp's inhabitants have been preparing as best they can for the coming winter months and life under canvas.

Armed with a shovel, a woman was digging a small trench around a tent in a bid to prevent expected rainwater from trickling in.

A young man fixed the family tent back into position after it had been hit by a dust storm.

Around 80 per cent of Raqqa city lies in ruins today, Amnesty International says, much of it due to air strikes by the US-led coalition.

Outside another tent, Mr Mashhur al-Maajun was sitting in a wheelchair, while his wife rested on a blanket on the ground.

"We lost our home. We have nowhere to go," said the 73-year-old double amputee, dressed in a long grey robe.

"The camp is the only shelter we have," said the old man, who had also lost his vision because of diabetes.

Her hair wrapped in a headscarf, his wife agreed.

"We don't want to live in this camp, but how are we supposed to live in our destroyed home?" she asked.

Syria's civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Making up the daily routine of life at the Ain Issa camp, women examined vegetables on sale at stalls, while others lined up to fill up plastic jerry cans with water.

On the edge of the camp, children played on swings.

Young boys and girls attended class in a tent turned classroom, while others gathered excitedly to receive pens and notebooks.

Some 150,000 people have returned to Raqqa since ISIS was defeated last year, the United Nations estimates.

But camp manager Jalal al-Ayaf says some 4,000 people from Raqqa still live in Ain Issa, alongside thousands more displaced from eastern Syria, and he is worried about the coming months.

"The NGOs don't give us anything anymore - no food baskets, no sanitation products," he said. "Some of the tents are worn out."

Inside the camp, residents complain that food deliveries are few and far between, with month-long delays between distributions, including for rice and cooking oil.

But despite such complaints, some say returning to Raqqa is too risky.

ISIS militants sowed landmines around the city as they retreated, a legacy that still maims and kills residents to this day. And there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Mr Mustafa Abud, 31, said there was no way he would take his three children back to a city that is still so unsafe.

He said: "We thought everything would be all right after the city was liberated. But it's no longer the Raqqa we know.

"We just want to live in safety. And right now, the camp is safer."

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