Trapped in Raqqa: Amnesty Says Civilians Caught in “Deadly Labyrinth” as U.S. Intensifies Airstrikes

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In Syria, the local journalistic group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reports dozens of civilians have been killed by U.S.-led bombing and artillery fire over the last few days amid the ongoing battle to seize control of the city of Raqqa from ISIS. Amnesty International has just released an in-depth investigation documenting how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since the offensive began in June to capture the ISIS stronghold. Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they were trapped on “all sides” between ISIS militants, the U.S.-led coalition force’s aerial bombardment and Russia-backed Syrian government airstrikes. Amnesty is now calling on all warring parties to prioritize protecting civilians and granting them safe passage. We speak to Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Syria, the local journalistic group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reports dozens of civilians have been killed by U.S.-led bombing and artillery fire over the last few days in the ongoing battle to seize control of the city of Raqqa from ISIS. The group says as many as 32 civilians were killed amid bombing in one neighborhood alone. Among the victims were eight members of a family who had fled to Raqqa from earlier fighting in Palmyra. A local Syrian journalist with the outlet Sound and Picture reports, quote, “The city is devoid of doctors and the market is devoid of food. What food there was in our fridges has rotted because of the absence of electricity,” unquote.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International has just released an in-depth investigation documenting how hundreds of Raqqa civilians have been killed and injured since the offensive began in June to recapture the ISIS stronghold. Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International they were trapped “on all sides” between ISIS militants, the U.S.-led coalition force’s ariel bombardment and Russia-backed Syrian government airstrikes. Amnesty is now calling on all warring parties to prioritize protecting civilians and granting them safe passage.

We go now to Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. She authored the new report titled “'I Won't Forget This Carnage’: Civilians Trapped in Battle for Raqqa—Syria.”

Donatella Rovera, thanks for joining us from London. Why don’t we begin where you just lay out the findings of your report and what people said to Amnesty in Raqqa?

DONATELLA ROVERA: The civilians, who have been, for four years, under the brutal dictate of ISIS, are now completely trapped in the city. They are unable to escape, because ISIS uses them as human shields. The ISIS fighters have mined the escape routes, and they are actually shooting at civilians if they see them trying to flee.

At the same time, they are under a barrage of artillery shelling and aerial bombardment being carried out by the U.S.-led coalition forces, who are operating on the ground in partnership with a local armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces. This is a mostly Kurdish group, certainly Kurdish-led, with the participation of other local fighters. They are the ones who essentially give the coordinates and call in the strikes, and then the U.S.-led coalitions, which are made up, really, on the ground, of mostly of U.S. forces, are the ones who then fire the artillery shells or drop the bombs. And that’s where a lot of civilians are getting killed.

The fact that ISIS embeds itself with the civilian population, that tries to use them as human shields, all that has been known for a long time. So, I think that we can presume that all of that was factored in when the—when the battle plan were being drawn and the strategy was being laid out. And the fact is that the strategy isn’t good enough for this kind of combat in an urban setting, where a few meters can make a huge difference. It can make the difference between a house full of ISIS combatants or a house full of civilians cowering and, you know, trying to keep safe. Therefore, the concern that we have at the moment is that the use by the U.S. coalition of munitions which are not as precise as they could be. Both the artillery shells and the bombs that are being dropped from aircraft are—they’re not always precise, especially the artillery shells. They also have a very wide impact radius, and so they cause a lot of damage, well beyond the point of impact, well beyond the intended target. And that’s how so many people have been killed.

Secondly, virtually all the civilians I spoke to who have managed to escape Raqqa managed to do so by crossing the river in small boats, because the bridges were bombed by coalition forces earlier in the year. So, knowing that the river is the main escape for civilians, U.S. coalition forces have dropped leaflets telling people not to use boats to cross the river, because they will be bombed. And General Townsend, the U.S. commander of the coalition forces, said recently that, basically, that they bomb every boat. I quote him. He said, “We bomb every boat.” Now, that is extremely worrying and absolutely unacceptable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Donatella, you were critical of—the report is critical of the kinds of weapons being deployed by the coalition forces, but the U.S. military has said again and again that they’re using the most precise weapons they have in their attempt to retake Raqqa from ISIS. But what did people there tell you about the effects of the bombardment?

DONATELLA ROVERA: I spoke to many families who, literally, run from place to place and still didn’t manage to be safe and lost family members. We had repeated testimonies of people who, as the artillery strikes, the artillery barrage, started to hit the neighborhood, tried to run away. But, you know, that’s what people told me. You really didn’t know where to run to, because you didn’t know where the next shell is going to come from. So, artillery shells fired in salvos falling all over the place over an area of like several streets, hitting 10, 12 houses, it may well be that some of those houses were legitimate military targets where there were combatants, but a lot of the others were civilians.

Now, it is certainly not the case that the coalition is using the most precise munitions available. There are much more precise munitions, which have also a much smaller impact radius. And it means that they don’t pose so much danger to people other than the target that has been chosen. It means that people who may be 50, 100 meters away will not be at risk to the same extent as they are with the kind of—with the kind of munitions that are being used at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: According to Airwars—

DONATELLA ROVERA: We are not naive.

AMY GOODMAN: —on June 5th—I wanted to ask you Donatella—U.S.-led airstrikes killed as many as 21 civilians at the river waiting to escape by boat. The coalition actually acknowledges launching 35 airstrikes that destroyed 68 boats between June 4th and June 6th, so even as people try to flee.

DONATELLA ROVERA: Absolutely, especially people trying to flee. The river has been the main area through which people have escaped, both the residents of Raqqa, who were trying to get out of the city, but also the residents of the villages to the south of Raqqa, who were trying to escape the indiscriminate bombardment from Syrian government forces backed by Russian forces, who have been launching indiscriminate attacks, including with internationally banned cluster munitions on the displaced people. And so, again, those people were able to get out of those areas and to get to safety. Those who managed to do so, they did so via the river, by crossing the river. So, to target any boat, as General Townsend said, is tantamount to launching indiscriminate attacks. And that is in violations of the laws of war.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Donatella, you’ve been talking about how difficult it is for people to flee Raqqa, but Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, has quoted a survivor who did manage to escape, who said, “In Raqqa city, if you don’t die from airstrikes, you die by mortar fire; if not by mortars, then by sniper shots; if not by snipers, then an explosive device. And if you get to live, you’re besieged by hunger and thirst, as there is no food, no water, no electricity.” So, what is Amnesty calling on coalition forces to do for those people who do manage to make it out?

DONATELLA ROVERA: Yes, and obviously, you know, some people have managed to make—to escape. And those are the people that I’ve been talking to. And some of them lost family members in the process. I spoke to a woman who lost three family members in front of her eyes, just as they were—as they were fleeing, because their relatives stepped on what was obviously some sort of booby traps laid by ISIS. So, several of the people I’ve spoken to went through that traumatic kind of incident as they were trying to escape.

Now, those who have left are sheltering in either formal or makeshift camps, which—where the conditions are absolutely dire. And again, it was very well known, when the battle for Raqqa was being planned, that this would result in large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, displaced, who were going to need looking after. They were going to need food and water and accommodation and medical care. And until now, the provisions of humanitarian aid for those who have managed to escape Raqqa is minimal. It’s completely inadequate for most of them. And for those who are in areas further removed, they are getting no aid at all. I saw people in makeshift camps literally in the middle of the desert, who had received absolutely zero humanitarian aid.

And once again, we get back to what should be a very simple equation. If there are funds for the war, there should be and there must be funds for the consequences of the war. It is—you know, this is not a surprise. This is something that should have been prepared, budgeted for. The humanitarian aid should have been already pre-positioned in areas where people were going to be arriving. Instead, we’re almost three months into the final phase, and there are a lot of people who are not getting any humanitarian aid. And that’s unacceptable, and it must change.

AMY GOODMAN: Donatella, Amnesty is also saying that the U.S.-led coalition is using white phosphorus munitions on the outskirts of Raqqa and that it’s unlawful and may amount to a war crime. Can you talk about what you found?

DONATELLA ROVERA: White phosphorus was used earlier on, on a couple of occasions, on the outskirts of Raqqa, so some time ago. It was used in a manner that basically constitutes indiscriminate—an indiscriminate attack, because it was air-bursted, you know, where it breaks in midair and then it sort of cascades down on the residential areas. We did not, ourselves, meet anybody who had been injured or relatives of people who had been killed as a result of the use of white phosphorus. But clearly, using white phosphorus in that manner, in that particular setting, is something that should not be done at all. White phosphorus is not banned, but it must not be used indiscriminately on civilians.

What is killing civilians in large numbers are the airstrikes and the artillery strikes. And now we are entering a very crucial phase in the battle for Raqqa. It’s the final phase. The fighting is happening right in the very center of the town. There is nowhere to run to. There is no escape, neither for the civilians nor for the ISIS combatants, who are therefore more likely to, on the one hand, fight harder and, on the other hand, put more pressure on the civilians, not to allow them to escape.

And so, it is really crucial that every feasible step that can be taken, every precaution, must be taken. And there are precautions that can and must be taken in terms of the choice of munitions and the choice of strike locations. If it’s not possible to verify that a certain location is absolutely a military target, then the strike should not go ahead, because we have seen too many families who have lived in the hell of a dictate of ISIS for four years and who are now being killed just as ISIS is being ousted from their city, when they—you know, they could have a chance for a better life, and instead they’re being killed in the process. And that has happened far too often.

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to the U.S. forces, they’re not only bombing Raqqa from the air, but there are hundreds of military on the ground, like Rangers and others, Donatella. We just have 20 seconds.

DONATELLA ROVERA: Yes, the U.S. soldiers are the main ones who are carrying out the artillery strikes. That’s their main task.

AMY GOODMAN: Donatella Rovera, we want to thank you for being with us, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, author of the report that we’ll link to, “'I Won't Forget This Carnage’: Civilians Trapped in Battle for Raqqa—Syria,” speaking to us from London.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we head to Geneva. Thousands of Muslims marched in Barcelona against violence after the attacks last week. We will go to Geneva to get the latest. Stay with us.

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