The risks of covering the final battle for Raqqa

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg   Wladimir van Wilgenburg  


The risks of covering the war against ISIS in northern Syria has increased. ISIS is now heavily resisting an assault by the US-backed Syrian Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Raqqa. Therefore, the SDF is more careful in giving access to local and foreign journalists to do reports on the Raqqa frontlines.

The Islamic state (ISIS) is known for it’s brutality. The organization has radically changed the risks of doing journalism: directly targeting, kidnapping, and beheading journalists in propaganda videos. Therefore, I stopped using press logo’s on my bulletproof vest and use camouflage. Moreover, they have been using the kidnapped British journalist John Cantlie for propaganda purposes in areas like Mosul and it’s unclear if he’s still alive or dead although Mosul was liberated in July this year.

Covering Manbij

I remember covering the campaign to take the Syrian city of Manbij from May 2016 until August 2016. Once an ISIS sniper hit one of the SDF fighters in a building nearby, the media officer of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) immediately escorted me and another foreign journalist to a safer place. A few hours before a coalition airstrike that hit a building very close by, shaking the ground.

Even at that time it was difficult to get to the ‘very hot frontlines’. For a journalist writing stories, it is not always necessary to go to the ‘real front’. It is also possible to understand the battle with just simply talking to fighters who are involved in the fight. However, for video journalists it’s more difficult to sell video footage without having some footage of fights.

Shortly after Manbij city was liberated on 12 August the city was fully covered with mines and IEDs. It was fairly easy to go and visit Manbij, but it was not wise to go without local fighters that knew the streets and knew which areas were cleared of mines or not. At that time, SDF fighters were clearing out the streets with hand-made explosives. Now the same is happening in Raqqa.

Raqqa and Mosul

To cover Raqqa, is to face similar risks to the operation of Mosul city in which several journalists were injured and killed. I remember well how one month ago, a mine in Mosul killed two French journalists and one Kurdish fixer. Since 2014, 28 journalists were killed in Iraq since the start of 2014, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The SDF wants to prevent a similar experience in Raqqa.
Etienne Leenhardt, head of reportages at France Televisions, told AFP they pulled their journalists out of Raqqa, due to the high risks. "One of our teams went to Raqqa (in neighbouring Syria) last week, and we decided to get them out after 48 hours, because we considered it was not a 'reasonable' risk," he said.

Drones and suicide bombers

One local journalist told me that while last year in Manbij the risk was only mines, in Raqqa the risks are bigger with also drones and suicide bombers targeting SDF fighters and journalists. Moreover, there is the risk of dozens of ISIS snipers that hit anything that moves. Just as during the start of the Mosul operation, ISIS is using drones for surveillance and to drop small bombs. As a result, the frontlines are much more dangerous, and journalists in general are only allowed to visit liberated areas in Raqqa. Until now the SDF is proud that no foreign journalists have been killed under their protection. 

When the SDF forces entered the city of Raqqa on 6 June, the tactics of ISIS changed compared to earlier battles. A few days after the SDF entered the city on 9 June, three local journalists covering the operation were injured when an ISIS drone hovering in a neighbourhood liberated by the SDF dropped explosives near them. They were transported to a hospital in Kobani by car at least 5 to 6 hours away from Raqqa. Luckily they were not heavily injured.

On 2 August, the same group of journalists were unlucky again, when ISIS hit a building with a heavily armed SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) and small arms fire in the al-Mashlab neighbourhood in the east side of the city, which was a neighbourhood that was liberated in June. Their car was completely burned, including their mobile phones.

The neighbourhood was not even on a frontline, but ISIS managed somehow to hide a suicide vehicle in the neighbourhood that was liberated back in June. Most likely doing so by hiding it in a tunnel or house and using a drone to track the vehicles and make a video that was later published on the semi-official ISIS news agency Amaq.

The two journalists and two SDF fighters that were injured were transported to a local field hospital of the Kurdish Red Crescent on the outskirts of Raqqa and quickly treated. Later my driver transported them in his car to Ayn al Issa, from where a SDF fighter drove the two injured journalists to Kobani where there is also a hospital.

Due to the risks of drones, members of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) in the West of Raqqa do not park their cars out in the open, fearing being targeted by ISIS drones. Therefore, they preferred me to accompany them in a car, rather than using the car of my driver. The more cars, the bigger the risk.

Last Tuesday, Roxanne Zerdest, a media officer of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) was injured by a bullet in the shoulder while she was filming the battle. Unlike journalists, the media teams of the YPG and YPJ are often documenting the fight on the front and also carry weapons. In some cases, they are the guides for other journalists on the front.

Also, some local media outlets close to the SDF such as Hawar News Agency (ANHA) are often on the frontlines. Zerdest was quickly treated in a hospital and is now stable.

For some journalists, the risk of going to Raqqa is becoming too high. Redwan Bezar from Kurdistan24, who was lightly injured by the ISIS attack on 2 August, asked me in the car on the way back to Ayn al Issa if I would still go back to Raqqa. He decided that for now he will stay away from the frontlines.