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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

For some Raqqa residents, battlefield is the only place to call home 

Unable to afford the cost of moving to safety, civilians stay put as the fight to oust ISIL rages around them

Members of the Abu Ghanem family sit inside a home where they are taking shelter in Raqqa's western Al Sabahiya district on August 14, 2017. Delil Souleiman /  AFP
Members of the Abu Ghanem family sit inside a home where they are taking shelter in Raqqa's western Al Sabahiya district on August 14, 2017. Delil Souleiman / AFP

Thousands of civilians have fled the battle to oust the ISIL from its Syrian stronghold Raqqa, but some have chosen to brave the dangers of remaining on the frontlines rather than go to the displacement camps that surround the city.

Although the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured over half of Raqqa city since they first entered it in June, the battle remains grinding and fierce.

In Al Sabahiya district, 40-year-old Anud watched as plumes of black smoke rose from fighting just streets away.

She fled to the western neighbourhood with her husband and seven children two weeks ago after their home in the city centre was destroyed.

Her face covered in a black-and-white scarf, Anud said the home they were living in belonged to her brother, who had fled to a camp.

"We couldn't pay 50,000 pounds [Dh355] to rent a home, so we came and opened up my brother's house in this dangerous area," she said.

"We cleaned it and removed five mines that were inside the rooms."

The house is completely empty, its blue ceramic-tiled floor bare and the walls unadorned except for black graffiti.

Al Sabahiya was one of the first neighbourhoods captured by the SDF, but it remains dangerous.

"We don't let the children leave the house because we're afraid mines might explode underneath them," Anud said.

The family's belongings are still stacked in a white lorry parked outside, ready in case they have to flee at a moment's notice.

"We're living on edge. We don't know how we will die," Anud sighed. "God protect us. May Raqqa be liberated so that we can return to our homes in peace."

As she spoke, her 11-year-old son Ahmed listened in silence.

Ahmed stopped speaking after the trauma of seeing his home destroyed, his father wounded, and his neighbours displaced in fierce bombardment of his district.

Outside, a pair of scrawny young boys pushed a wheelbarrow full of jerry cans to a nearby canal to draw some water.

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Read more:

With rosaries in their hands, Christians flee Raqqa and ISIL

US-backed forces tighten the noose around ISIL in Raqqa

Iraqi air forces start offensive to retake Tal Afar from ISIL

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Much of Al Sabahiya has been destroyed by fighting, and civilians desperately rummage through the rubble looking for salvageable items.

It is Abu Ghanem's native neighbourhood, but the fighting has forced his family to leave several times.

"Back and forth, back and forth, sometimes we can go back to our houses, sometimes we go and sit in the open," said Abu Ghanem, who is his sixties.

His family cannot afford to leave the city and rent a home elsewhere.

"Sometimes there's no bread, sometimes there's no flour, sometimes there's nothing to eat," he said.

He sat cross-legged on a blue wicker mat inside his simple home, dragging on a cigarette as relatives lit a small camping stove to begin cooking.

Air strikes and bombardment regularly shake the walls of his house, whose glass windows have long since shattered.

"In the middle of the night, the children wake up and ask for bread because they are hungry," Abu Ghanem said.

"We're living on the front line in the middle of fear and terror."

His wife, Umm Ghanem, would rather leave the area.

"Should we stay here to die?" she asked angrily of her husband. "We don't know when a mine could explode. We're holding our lives in our hands."

When Fatima Ahmed's family fled their home in the western Al Romaniya district, they headed to a camp for the displaced, like thousands of other civilians from Raqqa.

But she said it was impossible to survive at the camp without money to buy basic necessities, so they headed back to Al Sabahiya.

"We're staying here, what can we do? We don't have the money to leave," she said.

Conditions in the camps for the displaced scattered across Raqqa province are harsh, according to UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Food and clean water are difficult to access, displaced families struggle in the blistering heat, and even the most basic medicine is often unavailable.

That leaves Raqqa natives like Fatima torn between being unable to afford life in the camp and trying to keep their families safe.

"There are a lot of mines here. We spend all day standing over the children like guards to make sure they don't get hurt," she said.

"We don't have anything - no water, no electricity. We take water from an irrigation canal nearby and it's dirty."

The home they are squatting in is near a position held by an SDF unit, which sometimes provides them with bread, sugar, and other food to survive.

Al Sabahiya is next to their home district of Al Romaniya, but in battle-torn Raqqa, it feels worlds away.

"We hope that the situation and the danger will end and we can go back to our homes because we're fed up with death and fear," Fatima said.