Amnesty Urges U.S. to Pay Reparations to Syrians After Killing 1,600 Civilians in Assault on Raqqa

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Amnesty International is calling for the United States to pay reparations to survivors of the U.S.-led military coalition attack on Raqqa. A recent investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars showed the U.S.-led coalition killed more than 1,600 civilians during the 2017 offensive to oust ISIS militants from the Syrian city. The coalition launched thousands of airstrikes and tens of thousands of artillery strikes on the city. U.S. troops fired more artillery in Raqqa than anywhere since the Vietnam War. At the time, the United States claimed it was the “most precise air campaign in history.” We speak with Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. She returned earlier this week from a research trip to Raqqa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Amnesty International is calling for the United States to pay reparations to survivors of the U.S.-led military coalition attack on Raqqa. A recent investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars showed the U.S.-led coalition killed more than 1,600 civilians during the 2017 offensive to oust ISIS militants from the Syrian city. The coalition launched thousands of airstrikes and tens of thousands of artillery strikes on the city.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. troops fired more artillery in Raqqa than anywhere since the Vietnam War. At the time, the United States claimed it was the, quote, “most precise air campaign in history.”

To find out more, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Margaret Huang. She’s executive director of Amnesty International USA, just returned this week from a research trip to Raqqa, Syria.

Thank you so much for being with us. Talk about what you found, Margaret.

MARGARET HUANG: Thanks, Amy. The situation in Raqqa is truly extraordinary. The level of destruction that we’ve seen, that is on the ground today, is unprecedented in many, many ways. More than 80% of the city has been destroyed by the U.S. strikes.

And what’s most compelling about Raqqa is that there was only one party in this conflict that had airstrikes and that used artillery, and that is the U.S. coalition. In many other conflict zones, it can be very difficult and time-consuming to determine which party was responsible for which aspects of destruction. But in Raqqa, it’s pretty straightforward, because only one side of the conflict had access to those munitions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Margaret, can you just describe, having just been there for a few days, what are living conditions in Raqqa like for people who remain in the city?

MARGARET HUANG: So, it’s been more than 18 months since the end of the fighting, and the city still looks like a conflict zone. There have been efforts to clean up the streets, but the streets are heavily damaged, as well. And even driving and walking around the city can be quite difficult, certainly for people who have disabilities caused by the war. It’s almost impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to move around the city.

Many, many residents are still living in buildings that are half-destroyed. We saw many, many places where a half of a building had fallen down, there was structural damage to the building, and yet families were still living on upper floors of those buildings, because there’s no other place to live.

And I think one of the most striking findings for me was that we interviewed many women who had lost their families, lost their parents, their spouses, their children, in the bombings by the U.S. coalition. And their situation is even more desperate because of the social norms in Raqqa. They cannot live on their own. Their families feel tremendous pressure because they’re trying to encourage them to marry another person. And it’s been incredibly difficult for those women to mourn their families and also to find a new life in a place where there’s no access to jobs, there’s no electricity. And the destruction is truly calamitous.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to one of the women Amnesty International spoke to in Raqqa earlier this year, Ayat’s entire family killed in the airstrike.

AYAT: [translated] My children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my niece, my whole family—I’ve lost them all, my dearest ones. We were sitting in the basement when the rocket hit, just before sunset. When it hit, my face was burnt by the flames. My neighbor was in front of me and was left totally charred. When I came around, my son was screaming. He was in pain, but I couldn’t help them. He was screaming, “Mommy, help me!” I told him, “I can’t, my son. I can’t help you.” I was burnt. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move my hands or feet. I wasn’t able to help him. He suffered until morning and then died. Those who can afford the missiles that kill children can afford to help. What was this war? Wasn’t the goal to free civilians? They were supposed to save us, to protect our children.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Margaret, you also met with Ayat when you were in Raqqa. Can you talk about what reparations would look like and what exactly you’re calling for the U.S. and the U.K. to do right now in terms of rebuilding the city?

MARGARET HUANG: So, there’s no question that individual reparations are really, really important, particularly for women like Ayat. We did meet with her while we were in Raqqa. She is incredibly depressed.

I think one of the forms of reparations is really recognizing the trauma that many of the survivors in the city have gone through, the numbers of their family that they’ve lost and the sense of desperation that they feel about the future. But certainly, a clean place to live, not a building that is half-destroyed, is one piece; I think financial wherewithal, opportunities for work, that would enable women and men to be able to provide for their families and to live in safety and security; and then, of course, just the infrastructure and the services in the city. There’s really nothing in Raqqa right now to help rebuild. There’s not equipment. There are not the resources. All of the schools in Raqqa have been destroyed. Many of the hospitals have been destroyed. The national hospital has just reopened this spring, after a year and a half after the falling of the Islamic State forces. So there’s no question that there are many services and infrastructures, roads, buildings, that need to be restored, so that everyone in the community can in fact return to a more secure and safe life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Margaret, have you received any response from the U.S. or the U.K. governments to your requests or your demands that they should be involved in reconstruction and also reparations should be paid to the survivors?

MARGARET HUANG: When we first presented some initial findings and cases to the U.S. coalition, actually during the war, we were told that these were anomalies and not—you know, isolated cases and incidents. That is why Amnesty felt encouraged to do this very in-depth investigation. And we’ve now determined, at a minimum, a conservative estimate, of 1,600 civilians killed. We’ve been presenting our cases to the U.S. coalition, asking them to acknowledge them and to move forward with some form of restitution and reparations. To this date, the U.S. military has acknowledged 180 of our cases that we’ve identified. They have not yet started with any restitution or reparation. And there are hundreds more that we’re waiting for them to acknowledge.

I think what’s very clear on the ground is that it wasn’t isolated cases. There were hundreds and hundreds of buildings destroyed and hundreds of families lost. And I think it’s in the best interest of the U.S. military, the U.K. military and other members of the coalition to really learn from this experience in Raqqa. If they believe in their precision airstrikes as a tool for trying to protect civilians, they need to understand what actual impact happened in Raqqa, who was affected. And if they’re not willing to do the investigations themselves, then they have to take the cases and the incidences that we’ve provided, and others, in order to determine how they can offer better restitution to families.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Huang, we want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of Amnesty International USA, just returned from a trip to Raqqa, in Syria.

We want to wish Mike DiFilippo a happy birthday!

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