Under the Islamic State, Naim Square was one of Raqqa’s killing grounds, where executioners shot kneeling prisoners and severed heads were left on fenceposts.
Two years after ISIS was chased from the city, it’s just a traffic circle again, surrounded by shops and restaurants, the rubble of fallen buildings and a 3D I🖤Raqqa sign.
But the past keeps resurfacing.
Across the bridge that spans the Euphrates River, on a shaded roadside, Yasser Al Khamis was supervising a team at a mass grave site that had so far yielded 18 bodies.
Surgical masks over their mouths, they dug their shovels into the dry northern dirt as traffic passed by. They kept digging until all you could see was their orange hard hats.
The locals told them about this place. They said ISIS had buried bodies between the trees, and they were right. Mostly women and children were recovered, said Al Khamis, who works for the Civil Council of Raqqa.
It was the 18th mass grave Raqqa’s first responders team had found.
After 20 days of work, they were back for one last check, to make sure they hadn’t missed anyone before they moved on to the next site, which was still being cleared of mines.
At another dig close by, a doctor in scrubs picked through a bag of human remains, one of 31 bodies discovered at the site.
Using a kitchen scrub brush, a worker cleaned the bones and examined the clothing, cutting out the manufacturers’ labels to help with identification.
The first responders have found more than 5,300 bodies this way. They are matched against missing persons lists and returned to their families when possible.
Samples of those who cannot be positively identified are stored away in the hope that one day the team will have the equipment and training for DNA testing.
Raqqa was the administrative headquarters of the so-called ISIS caliphate. It was also the backdrop for the horrors that were recorded on video and posted on the internet to taunt the world.
Naim Square, the old clock tower and the sports stadium became public execution sites, and their victims continue to turn up, some still clad in orange jumpsuits.
Global News found the scene of one of the most infamous of those executions on the northeast edge of Raqqa, across from the city’s sugar factory.
It was here that ISIS recorded the 2014 video Flames of War, which showed Syrian prisoners digging their own graves and falling forward into them as they were executed en masse with gunshots to the back of the head.
The narrator of the video was Mohammed Khalifa, a former Toronto resident who told Global News in an interview he had worked for the ISIS media branch.
Life in Raqqa as a 9-to-5 routine, Khalifa said, churning out daily ISIS propaganda and then returning him to his wife and children, whom he would take to the river when they needed a family outing.
Several other Canadians who were part of ISIS also lived in Raqqa, as the group brutally imposed its dark vision on the population, throwing homosexuals off buildings, enslaving women and sending morality police into the streets to enforce everything from beard length to prayer attendance.
On October 17, 2017, the city was retaken by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces. But the destruction of ISIS seemingly required the sacrifice of Raqqa.
Even two years later, where buildings once stood there are only piles of concrete. The city’s church has been razed. Off a sidewalk, a staircase rises to nowhere.
The SDF bases around the city helped contain ISIS but last week’s Turkish invasion of northern Syria has upended the relative quiet.
Following the White House announcement on Oct. 6 that U.S. troops were pulling out of the region to make way for Turkey’s military offensive, ISIS launched three suicide bombings in Raqqa.
The ISIS attacks marked a step back to the past, as did the return of Syrian regime troops, who passed through Raqqa after Kurdish forces made a deal with the country’s Russian-backed president, Bashar Al-Assad.
But the destruction and violence doesn’t tell the whole story of the city.
As workers dug out a mass grave, a local man picked pomegranates from his orchard, then handed them to the team and observers, as if to remind them that kindness had survived.
After leaving Raqqa, the van hired by Global News ran out of diesel. Seeing two oil tanker trucks parked at an abandoned gas station, the driver pulled over to ask for fuel.
Using a plastic water bottle as a funnel, the tanker truck operators filled the van but refused to take any payment, insisting they wanted to help, not sell.