The woman covered her face as she turned around, looking behind her as she waited to buy bread in a small shop in Raqqa, Syria. It was July 2013, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Islamic State and the Free Syria Army both were present in the only major Syrian city captured, just a few weeks before, by the opposition.
And yet, said Alice Martins, a photographer and frequent contributor to The Washington Post, there was already a sense that extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, were slowly solidifying their presence in Raqqa.
“At the time, it was still uncommon for women to dress in a more conservative manner, by covering their faces,” said Martins. “By January 2014, ISIS had taken full control of the city and began enforcing their strict dress code, which demanded women cover themselves entirely.”
Three years later, as Martins returned to Raqqa just weeks after the city was liberated from ISIS, “a surprisingly significant number of women still dressed according to ISIS rules,” she told In Sight. “Locals claim most still simply did not feel safe and feared the militants could capture the city again at any time.”
This is the story of Raqqa, a city destroyed during four years of occupation and the U.S.- and Kurdish-led military operation that freed it from the clutches of extremism.
That story, told in the pages of The Washington Post over the last year, is now the subject of an exhibition — “Welcome to Free Raqqa!” at Visa pour l’Image, the world’s largest photojournalism festival, held each year, and for the past 30 years, in Perpignan, France.
It’s the story of a city that continues to deal with the unprecedented destruction that befell it. “The city is still strewn with unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices, and the stench of decomposing bodies is all around,” Martins said after her latest excursion into Raqqa, in March 2018. “An underequipped and understaffed civil defense unit struggles to retrieve bodies from the rubble, unable to identify many of the remains and burying them in mass graves. Civilians who were displaced during the military operation remain in camps in the countryside, some making day trips to the city to begin rebuilding their homes, but most simply cannot afford it. Many are maimed or killed as they enter buildings that haven’t been cleared of explosives, to try and collect any valuables they may find.”
A deep sense of injustice dominated the conversations among survivors and refugees who returned to the shattered city, said Martins. “Several people we spoke to question the way the operation was conducted: Was there any concern for civilian lives? Were the bombs used to take out a single sniper that often also caused the death of several civilians an acceptable choice?”
These are not the only questions that remain unanswered. Another one — a crucial one — is uncertain. Will Raqqa be free again?
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
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