Civilians stay on frontlines despite dangers in Raqa

Braving the fierce battle

RAQA - The fight to oust the Islamic State jihadist group from its Syrian stronghold Raqa has displaced thousands of civilians, but some have decided to stay on the frontlines despite the dangers.
Although the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured over half of Raqa city since they first entered it in June, the battle remains grinding and fierce.
In Al-Sabahiya district of western Raqa, 40-year-old Anud was watching as plumes of black smoke rise from the battlefield just streets away.
She fled to the neighbourhood with her husband and seven children two weeks ago after their home in the city centre was destroyed.
Her face covered in a black-and-white scarf, Anud said the abandoned home they were living in belonged to her brother, who had fled to a camp.
"We couldn't pay 50,000 pounds ($100) to rent a home, so we came and opened up my brother's house in this dangerous area," she said.
"We cleaned it and removed five mines that were inside the rooms."
The house is completely empty, its blue ceramic tiled floor bare and the walls unadorned except for black graffiti.
Al-Sabahiya was one of the first neighbourhoods captured by the SDF, but it remains dangerous.
"We don't let the children leave the house because we're afraid mines might explode underneath them," Anud said.
The family's belongings are still stacked in the white lorry parked outside, ready in case they have to flee at a moment's notice.
"We're living on edge. We don't know how we will die," she sighed. "God protect us. May Raqa be liberated so that we can return to our homes in peace."
- Displaced 'back and forth' -
As Anud gestured, her 11-year-old son Ahmed listened in silence.
Ahmed stopped speaking after the trauma of seeing his home destroyed, his father wounded, and his neighbours displaced in fierce bombardment of his district.
Outside, a pair of scrawny young boys pushed a wheelbarrow full of jerry cans to a nearby canal to draw some water.
Much of Al-Sabahiya has been destroyed by fighting, and civilians desperately rummage through the rubble looking for salvageable items.
It is Abu Ghanem's native neighbourhood, but the fighting in Raqa has displaced his family several times.
"Back and forth, back and forth, sometimes we can go back to our houses, sometimes we go and sit in the open," the man in his sixties said.
He said his family can't afford to leave the city and rent a home elsewhere.
"Sometimes there's no bread, sometimes there's no flour, sometimes there's nothing to eat," he said.
He sat cross-legged on a blue wicker mat inside his simple home, dragging on a cigarette as relatives lit a small camping stove to begin cooking.
Air strikes and bombardment still regularly shake the walls of his house, whose glass windows had long since shattered.
"In the middle of the night, the children wake up and ask for bread because they are hungry," Abu Ghanem said.
"We're living on the front line in the middle of fear and terror."
His wife, Umm Ghanem, would rather leave the area.
"Should we stay here to die?" she asked angrily of her husband. "We don't know when a mine could explode. We're holding our lives in our hands."
- 'Fed up with death and fear' -
When Fatima Ahmed's family fled their home in the western Al-Romaniya district, they initially headed to a camp for the displaced, like thousands of other civilians from Raqa.
But she said it was impossible to survive at the camp without money to buy basic necessities, so they headed back to Al-Sabahiya.
"We're staying here, what can we do? We don't have the money to leave," she said, dressed in a black robe.
Conditions in the camps for the displaced scattered across Raqa province are harsh, according to UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Food and clean water are difficult to access, displaced families struggle in the blistering heat, and even the most basic medicine is often unavailable.
That leaves Raqa natives like Fatima torn between being unable to afford life in the camp and trying to keep their families safe.
"There are a lot of mines here... We spend all day standing over the children like guards to make sure they don't get hurt," she said.
"We don't have anything -- no water, no electricity. We take water from an irrigation canal nearby and it's dirty."
The home they are squatting in is near a position held by an SDF unit, which sometimes provides them with bread, sugar, and other food to survive.
Al-Sabahiya lies adjacent to their home district of Al-Romaniya, but in battle-torn Raqa, it feels worlds away.
"We hope that the situation and the danger will end and we can go back to our homes because we're fed up with death and fear," she said.