ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Once known as the Islamic State “public square from hell,” with regular executions, crucifixions, and lashings, Raqqa’s old Paradise Square is returning to its former glory, two years after its liberation.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa in October 2017, after a heavy battle that lasted months. When it was retaken, the damage to the city’s infrastructure was extensive and grim.
Now, the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) is focused on rebuilding and providing services as life slowly comes back to the streets of the Islamic State Caliphate’s former capital in Syria.
Just after its liberation, civilians in Raqqa were hesitant to visit the square which reminded them of the city’s suffering under the jihadist group’s tyrannical reign.
“The square was a place where heads were put on spikes. Today, it is full of life and fountains,” Zabia (38) from Raqqa told Kurdistan 24. “The people are now coming and going without fear. Before, it was challenging to pass by.”
Over the past few months, civilians have returned to the renovated square, which was outfitted with new fountains, a worthy backdrop for many who come to take selfies and lounge in public. Raqqa’s iconic clock tower was also rebuilt by the RCC, with some new features.
Despite limited support and funding from the international community, the people of Raqqa have remained resilient as the local council continues with its efforts to restore and renovate the city.
The RCC, led by Layla Mustafa, said they decided in October 2018 how to progress with renovation efforts. “We received a lot of proposals, and we chose this one because we wanted a place with water and greenery, and clear image of the past,” she told Kurdistan 24.
The project began in late 2018 and finished in February this year.
“We want to make a statue to commemorate the people and the war against ISIS,” she said. “It was painful for people’s eyes and mental health [to associate the square with those memories]. So many people left this place and city because of the horrible things they saw and experienced.”
“When we first liberated Raqqa, it was a pile of mines and destruction. All the infrastructure - education, health, humanitarian - was destroyed,” she explained.
“No place in the world has seen the devastation Raqqa has. With the efforts of the SDC [Syrian Democratic Council] and the support of humanitarian organizations, we have achieved a major milestone.”
Mustafa noted the council was able to start providing public services in a short period of time, including the construction of 317 schools, where 4,000 teachers are employed and 115,000 students enrolled.
Additionally, she affirmed, the Civil Council has opened over 17 different health institutions, including ten public hospitals.
“It is urgent that all of these services resume. Day by day we are trying to improve [the situation].”
According to Hussam Jassem, project officer of the Early Recovery Team (ERT), a local humanitarian NGO that helped renovate the square, they were interested in clearing Raqqa from all signs of ISIS.
“Alnaeem [Paradise] Square was one of the biggest symbols associated with Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIS],” he claimed.
Since the Islamic State turned the public square into a hellish execution ground, “the ERT decided to revamp the image of this square completely with a totally new design, by the ERT Engineering team, and we can now see the perfect implementation of this project,” Jassem asserted.
“We consider Alnaeem Square, with its new image, the best gift to the people of Raqqa, to help them to forget the black days of Daesh when they ruled the city. It’s a sign, for the whole world, that the people of Raqqa are stronger than the black death, and, even if the whole city was destroyed, we still live here and we will rebuild the city again.”
Editing by Nadia Riva