US-led coalition airstrikes destroyed Raqqa. I met the women we’ve abandoned there.

Ayat Mohammed Jasem was just 32 years old when she lost her husband, her four children, her mother, her sister and her niece in Syria on Sept. 25, 2017. It was not the Assad regime nor the armed group calling itself the Islamic State that was responsible for their deaths. Rather, it was the forces of the U.S.-led coalition. 

Ayat’s family members were among the 32 civilians who were killed when a coalition air strike destroyed the building they lived in, just before sunset. Ayat was in the basement. Her face and arms were burned by the resulting flames. She saw her neighbor charred before her. And she heard her son screaming in pain, begging for her help as she was trapped under rubble and unable to move. The pain of watching him suffer until the morning, when he finally died, was paralyzing.

I met Ayat in May when I visited Raqqa, Syria, to document the stories of those who survived the strikes by the U.S.-led coalition. Ayat told me that she suffered from a deep depression with no services to deal with her trauma, and expressed deep regret that she did not die that September day with her family.

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She has been left alone, with no place to live, relying on her friends for shelter, and working for less than a $1 per day at a hair salon. Ayat’s four children are some of the more than 200 children that we have been able to document who were killed by the U.S-led coalition air strikes. Some infants were only days old.

US-led air campaign leaves lasting damage 

In early June 2017, the U.S.-led coalition began its four-month campaign in Raqqa to oust the Islamic State. During its nearly four-year rule of Raqqa, the Islamic State committed war crimes and other atrocities, like torturing and killing the residents.

However, what destroyed the city, killing and injuring more than 1,600 civilians, was the coalition’s use of explosive weapons in urban areas where they knew civilians were trapped. Thousands of homes, public buildings and basic infrastructure were all reduced to nothing. Eighty percent of Raqqa was damaged or destroyed, and only the coalition used air strikes and artillery during the fighting. In fact, Army Sgt. Major. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that just one Marine artillery battalion has “fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa, Syria, than any other … Marine or Army battalion since the Vietnam war.” 

Margaret Huang, left, and Ayat Mohammed Jasem, center, in Raqqa, Syria, in May 2019.
Amnesty International

Those most at risk — women and children — are still struggling to recover from the onslaught. Schools in Raqqa that were damaged in the war remain in shocking disrepair. Some have holes in roofs or are filled with hazardous waste. As families who have lost everything in the war receive no help, it is the children who are left to go scavenging for metal scraps and plastics, instead of going to school. The risks to children as they do this — from mines or unexploded ordnance left over from the battle to injuries from damaged buildings and structures — are great.

Women, children particularly vulnerable

Women who have survived the offensive face additional challenges as they struggle with traditional social norms. A number of the women I met with in Raqqa shared their experience with beatings and harsh treatment during the regime of the IS. The lack of employment available for women has also meant that they have no means of providing for themselves.

Unable to live on their own following the offensive, and with limited work opportunities, widows have faced difficulties finding a place to live. Hence, the pressure to marry for single or widowed women is immense, even as many simply want to mourn the losses of the lives they have lost.

One 23-year-old woman I met lost her toddler when the coalition bombed a building across the street from her family home. The damage from the bombing broke her daughter’s arm and pelvis. Despite rushing her to the hospital, health care providers could not save her life. Since the conflict, accessing medical services has been close to impossible.

As the residents of Raqqa struggle to rebuild their lives following the destruction of their city, U.S. forces and allies should investigate the consequences of their air strikes, and conduct thorough, independent investigations of all credible claims of civilian deaths.

The U.S.-led coalition should provide assistance to women, children and other community members, with a focus on funding much-needed infrastructure and services including schools and hospitals. The United States must recognize the human rights of Raqqa’s children and families, and the coalition governments must provide support for reconstruction and restitution to the victims whose lives they have irreparably impacted.

Margaret Huang is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretLHuang.

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