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In Raqa, exalted fighters await day-day against EI

Ⓒ AFP – BULENT KILIC – | Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqa, Syria, on 24 September 2017

For the past three years Syrian fighter Sevger Himo has been waiting for the end of the Islamic State (IS) group in his country. Today, he is in the front row of the battle for Raqa, “capital” of the organization in Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by Washington, are chasing the latest jihadists in the struggling northern city of Syria, whose fall would be a symbolic and resounding victory against the EI.

Whole quarters of this city bordered by the river Euphrates have been reduced to a heap of ruins. Sometimes, the carcass of a refrigerator or a kettle appears, ridiculous signs that someone has lived there one day, found an AFP journalist carried away by the SDS.

“When fighting the EI in Kobane three years ago, Raqa was always referred to as the capital of the caliphate,” said Sevger, a commander of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who dominate the FDS. The village of Kobane in northern Syria was the scene of one of the first battles against the EI.

“Now we are in the center of Raqa and the feeling is completely different,” he continues, incredulously.

Sevger, sitting cross-legged on the roof of a partly destroyed building in the Rmeila neighborhood in the east of Raqa, maintains that the end of this war is close to his heart.

Along with other YPG fighters, he had already confronted the EI at the end of 2014 in Kobané, a strategic city near the border with Turkey and then in Minbej further south.

Ⓒ AFP – Delil souleiman – | Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqa, Syria, on 24 September 2017

At that time, Raqa evoked for them the ultimate bastion of the EI. “We used to say ‘the EI sent reinforcements, support and equipment to Raqa'”, recalls the commander.

After taking over Raqa in 2014, the ultra-radical group transformed the city of 300,000 inhabitants into a horror laboratory, using notably the public squares to chastise the inhabitants who break its law by decapitations and flogging.

– ‘EI collapsed’ –

Supported by the strikes of the anti-Jihadist coalition planes led by the United States, the FDS launched their offensive in the province of the same name at the end of 2016 and reached in June to break the latch of the city.

At the edge of a large artery of the city lies the headless body of an alleged EI fighter.

Ⓒ AFP – BULENT KILIC – | Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqa, Syria, 24 September 2017

“In all our battles (against the jihadists), we have gained experience,” the commander commented, between two orders issued to his troops by a walkie-talkie.

He lost companions in arms in the battle and is only waiting for one thing: to proclaim victory to Raqa.

“We owe it to those who died or were wounded,” he said.

At his side, another commander, Abdallah, agrees.

“We want to free our friends and families from this black stain. I lived under the EI, I was imprisoned, accused of being a spy and whipped in front of the mosque,” he recalls.

This fiftieth-century silhouette joined the FDS in March after they chased the EI from its village of Karama, about 100 km southeast of Raqa.

“We are moving forward and there is no longer any possibility of retreat. They have tried to use religion as a shield but it will not work,” he adds.

– ‘You will see joy’ –

On Sunday, its units moved into an area mined by jihadists around a cemetery in the city center.

Ⓒ AFP – BULENT KILIC – | Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqa, Syria, on 24 September 2017

Abdallah and Sevger want to take al-Naim, a great crossroads further to the west of the symbolic reach: this is where the jihadists led the public executions.

“We’re racing,” he said, “whoever arrives first will be able to plant the flag,” Abdallah exclaims with a smile, revealing his white teeth under his black mustache.

“I hope that in the days to come you will see the joy, the songs, it will be an indescribable happiness”.

Further on, in a street strewn with rubble, fighters are preparing for a further advance against positions of the EI around the cemetery.

“We hope that Raqa will be released in a few days. The next phase will be difficult, but our morale is excellent,” said one of them, Abu Abdo al-Sheikh.

“I have not fought for six years to go home now!”, He said.

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