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Airstrikes or minefields: The deadly choice facing Raqqa’s 300,000 residents

US-backed forces are advancing on Raqqa – a stronghold of the so-called Islamic State.

Syria People inspecting damage from airstrikes and artillery shelling in the northern city of Raqqa, Syria (29 May 2017). Source: Aamaq News Agency/PA Images

AS US FORCES ADVANCE to reclaim the Syrian city of Raqqa from the so-called Islamic State, are faced with the stark choice of whether to stay put under heavy bombardment, or leave the city by crossing active frontlines and minefields, says international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

“Parents have to make an impossible decision,” says MSF emergency coordinator Puk Leenders.

“Either they stay in Raqqa, subjecting their children to increased violence and airstrikes, or they take them over the frontline, knowing they will need to cross minefields and may be caught in the crossfire.”

Having made the decision to leave, escaping Raqqa – known as the stronghold of Islamic State – is still fraught with difficulties.

“People are punished if they try to flee, and generally manage to leave only by paying huge bribes,” says Leenders.

“The road to Ain Issa was littered with mines,” says a 65-year-old man from Raqqa. “It took us two months to be able to leave Raqqa, but finally I left with five other families.

On the way, I was injured in an airstrike, while two of the children stepped on landmines as we fled in the middle of the night, injuring them both, one of them seriously.

Syria A fighter from the Syria Democratic Forces carrying his rifles as he looks over the northern town of Tabqa, Syria. Source: PA Images

US-backed Syrian fighters seized part of a district on the western edge of the Islamic State group’s Raqqa bastion and battled to advance inside the city’s east, a monitor said.

The Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke into the city for the first time earlier this week, months after they launched an operation to capture the jihadist stronghold.

They are backed by the US-led coalition which carried out heavy air strikes on Raqqa and its surroundings into Friday morning.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said SDF fighters took parts of the suburb of Jazra just west of Raqqa’s city limits on Friday.

The monitor said heavy clashes were continuing in other parts of the neighbourhood, where at least 15 civilians were killed on Thursday night in the air strikes that hit an internet cafe.

The casualties in Jazra were among 23 civilians killed in over two dozen US-led coalition strikes on and near Raqqa on Thursday night, the Observatory said.

Humanitarian crisis

Many of those leaving Raqqa are heading north in search of safety towards neighbouring areas such as Ain Issa, Manbij, Mahmoudli and Tal Abyad, all within a 120-km radius of the northern Syrian city. Some, however, have headed for ‘the Berm’– the border area between southern Syria and Jordan, almost 700km away, where humanitarian assistance is almost non-existent.

Already vulnerable, their journey out of Raqqa is taking a heavy toll on their health. This is being exacerbated by poor living conditions once they arrive in a place of relative safety, in the often makeshift camps.

Syria Raqqa Offensive Q&A Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces looking toward the northern town of Tabqa, Syria. Source: AP/PA Images

“Driving through these areas, you see tents and people haphazardly scattered all over the place, with the bare minimum for survival,” says Leenders.

Most people that we see are farmers, therefore most of them either leave with their livelihood like sheep and some belongings, or they leave with nothing aside from the clothes they are wearing.

MSF also urges international aid organisations to step up the provision of humanitarian aid to people fleeing Raqqa.

Read: US blacklists Syrian chemists over deadly sarin gas attack

Read: Ireland donated €51 million in record-breaking year for Concern

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