Syrian crisis

Hunger and fear in Syria's Tabqa after IS defeat

When Dalal Ahmad heard that the fighters who expelled the Islamic State group from the Syrian town of Tabqa were distributing food, she began to run, desperate for any scraps.

Trash and dead bodies were visible on the streets of Tabqa 48 hours after SDF forces recaptured the Syrian town from the Islamic State Group
Trash and dead bodies were visible on the streets of Tabqa 48 hours after SDF forces recaptured the Syrian town from the Islamic State Group (AFP)

When Dalal Ahmad heard that the fighters who expelled the Islamic State group from the Syrian town of Tabqa were distributing food, she began to run, desperate for any scraps.

After more than a month of heavy fighting, and a siege that left the city in Raqa province cut off from supplies, Ahmad and others like her in Tabqa are hungry, exhausted and afraid.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized the town of Tabqa and the nearby dam on Wednesday after fierce fighting.

The city has been ravaged by the clashes, and trash and dead bodies were visible on the streets 48 hours after the SDF announced Tabqa's capture.

So when one of her neighbours told Ahmad that the SDF was distributing food in Tabqa's central market, she rushed over as fast as she could.

Tabqa
Tabqa (AFP)

But on her arrival, she found the "distribution" was nothing more than a few SDF fighters sharing their meals with local residents.

"We're so fed up and disgusted with ourselves," she told AFP, her disappointment clear in her voice.

"There's no water to wash or to clean with. Everything has been cut off: water, electricity, food," she said.

"We want humanitarian groups to help us out before we die of hunger and disease."

Nearby, a woman combed through the remains of an SDF meal, gathering discarded sandwiches and placing them in a box.

"The situation in the town is very difficult, particularly because of the major food shortage caused by the fighting and the severing of supply routes after the town was surrounded by the SDF," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

«Flies and dirt»

A man speaks to a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Tabqa on May 12, 2017
A man speaks to a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Tabqa on May 12, 2017 (AFP)

On another street, residents waited to fill bottles at a water tank, their supply cut by the fighting for the nearby Tabqa dam.

Around them was evidence of the fight for the town, including damaged buildings and the body of a suspected IS fighter lying in the street.

Uncollected rubbish sat in small piles along the road, attracting clouds of flies.

In the market, shopkeepers worked to clean the street in front of their businesses.

"There is a lot of illness spreading because of the bodies that are still scattered about, which are starting to smell," said 40-year-old Abdel Rahman Shakrushi.

"There are flies and dirt everywhere, which is affecting our health."

Abdel Rahman said hundreds of people were still missing in the town, with the bodies of many people killed in air strikes still believed to be under rubble.

The SDF operation in Tabqa was backed by heavy air strikes from the US-led coalition, and civilians trapped in the fighting were terrified
The SDF operation in Tabqa was backed by heavy air strikes from the US-led coalition, and civilians trapped in the fighting were terrified (AFP)

IS jihadists seized Tabqa in 2014, and the town was a key prize for the SDF as they press an operation to recapture the extremist group's Syrian bastion of Raqa, 55 kilometres (35 miles) to the east.

The SDF operation was backed by heavy air strikes from the US-led coalition, and civilians trapped in the fighting were terrified.

Some were able to escape, and made their way towards the SDF fighters, but others like 20-year-old Muhannad Haj Omar moved around the town looking for safety.

"We were going from place to place, from house to house. We didn't even know where we were any more," he said.

«They destroyed our lives»

Even with IS expelled, and facing a final assault on their stronghold, fear of the group remains strong in Tabqa.

Ahmad was still wearing the all-enveloping black robes and face veil that IS required of all women living under its rule.

"We're still afraid that they could come back and attack the city. We're afraid for our children," she said.

A member of the Special forces from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) takes a picture at the Tabqa dam, on May 12, 2017, after it was recaptured from Islamic State group fighters
A member of the Special forces from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) takes a picture at the Tabqa dam, on May 12, 2017, after it was recaptured from Islamic State group fighters (AFP)

"I don't want to remove the face veil, even though I didn't wear it before Daesh came," she added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

In the middle of the market was a signpost with two horizontal crossbars that residents said IS fighters used to display the bodies of those killed for violating its harsh rules.

One resident told AFP on condition on anonymity that his son, a pharmacist, was hung from the post after being executed on accusations of "dealing with the infidels".

"They left him there for three days, and I came every day to guard his body so the dogs wouldn't tear into it," he said with tears in his eyes.

He refused to give his name or be filmed, saying he too remained afraid that IS could return and take revenge.

Omar shook his head as he recalled the terror IS brought to the town.

"They made us hate living and life," he said.

"They destroyed our lives."