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Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital



After months of brutal fighting, the battle to retake Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State caliphate, is almost over. Scroll down to follow photographer Achilleas Zavallis and reporter Martin Chulov as they journey from the Iraqi border to the wasteland of the frontline of the ancient Syrian city where the few remaining Isis fighters are making their last stand.

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Crossing the Syrian border

Bobbing rhythmically over barren hills, the donkey heads of Rojava’s oil trade draw crude from the ground, sending it down thin pipes to a refinery nearby. These basic black pumps are the linchpin of the region’s economy, and are central to what happens after Isis is finally pushed from Raqqa and its surrounds. Oil could galvanise Kurdish claims on autonomy. The subterranean riches here are also tempting for forces fighting to the south, Russian, Iranian, American and Syrian.

General view of an oil-field near the Fysh Khabwr border crossing.  - 1507608959 779 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

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Driving between Kobani and Ain Issa

Syria’s newest refugees arrive most days here, on a dusty outpost near a teeming refugee camp. They tumble exhausted from clapped out lorries and cars that have barely made the journey. Their faces swathed in scarves to avoid the dust and flies, they settle into makeshift tents, and wait.

A truck carrying civilians who fled the fighting in Raqqa, seen on the road leading to the Ain Issa IDP camp.  - 5093 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Many come from Raqqa. Others from towns and villages close to Deir ez-Zor, where Isis is fighting yet another last stand. Their fate, like that of the millions of others who have fled five years of war and insurgency, is uncertain.

Visiting the Ain Issa IDP camp

Refugees from Syria and Iraq are crammed into this camp, one of the biggest in the Raqqa hinterland. Some had been displaced more than three times before arriving here. “Everywhere we go, the airstrikes follow,” said Abu Jassem, originally from Falluja in Iraq.

View of the Ain Issa IDP camp.  - 1507608959 27 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

In one corner are the widows and orphans of foreign fighters. Blond and red-headed children frolic in a small courtyard. Their mothers hide behind curtains, many wearing chadors. They are stigmatised by their captors and by other refugees.

Displaced Syrians who fled the fighting in Raqqa and Deir al Zour seen inside a tent that serves as a barber shop in the Ain Issa IDP camp.  - 1507608959 291 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

A young girl and her baby sister seen inside a section of the Ain Issa IDP camp, where family members of foreign ISIS fighters are kept.  - 1507608959 612 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Civilians who fled the fighting in Deir al Zour rest inside a tent at the Ain Issa IDP camp.  - 1507608959 286 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

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East Raqqa YPG base

In this half-finished concrete building, fighters in the war with Isis rest and recuperate, before heading to the frontline a mile away. Their dead and wounded are brought here. They sleep, eat and plan the war in the room upstairs, from where they can see smoke rising from the battle.

A general view shows smoke rising from an ISIS position inside Raqqa, shortly after it was hit by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Coalition artillery.  - 1507608959 830 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Here, Hazam, a Kurd from Kobani, who lost a hand in the battle for his home town, oversees a fighting force of mostly Arab youths from Raqqa. Hazam is supervised by a Kurd from the Turkish mountains.

Hazem, center, from Kobane, who leads a People’s Protection unit fighting in Raqqa, gets an update from the front line over a two-way radio.  - 1507608959 494 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

SDF fighters seen inside a building used as a temporary People’s Protection Units base  - 1507608959 736 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

A fighter with the People’s Protection Units checks a map of the front lines.  - 1507608959 655 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Fighting nearby

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters help a shellshocked comrade to his feet. The fighter and his team were hit by an RPG round, fired by Isis militants, while trying to assist cut-off members of their unit on the east Raqqa front line.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters help a shell shocked SDF fighter on his feet.  - 1507608959 476 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

SDF fighters who got injured while trying to assist a cut-off team of their unit, seen on the back of truck while being transported in a near-by field hospital.  - 1507608960 873 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

SDF fighters load the dead body of a dead SDF fighter on a truck.  - 1507608960 10 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Approaching the frontline

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter seen at a temporary SDF base, overlooking a cemetery that was destroyed during heavy clashes with ISIS militants.  - 1507608960 15 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Less than half a mile from the Raqqa clock tower, anti-Isis fighters are dug into the ruins of several buildings. Some use holes in a wall to scope for extremists further on.

A YPG fighter walks near the entrance of a tunnel used by ISIS militants to avoid detection while moving between their positions.  - 1507608960 858 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Their foes, like them, move through holes they have smashed through walls. The enemy is often less than two buildings away, hidden in the remnants of a ruined city that was once the heart of their so-called caliphate, but volunteers fighting with the Kurds say they have never seen a live Isis member.

YPG fighters move through a hole opened by the YPG on the side of a building, to avoid being spotted by ISIS snippers as they move towards the front line.  - 1507608960 739 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

An SDF fighter checks for enemy movements, from a snipper position overlooking ISIS held areas on the East Raqqa front line.  - 1507608960 969 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Burnt-out cars are used as a temporary road blockade near a SDF base as a precautionary measure against Isis suicide car bombs.

Burned out cars used as a temporary road blockade.  - 1507608960 694 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter rests inside a temporary SDF base near the East Raqqa front line.  - 1507608960 593 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

Near Clock Tower Square

Map of Raqqa

Beyond the jagged wasteland there is a prize that all those fighting Isis are aiming for: a clock tower that stands on a small roundabout. Public executions were routinely performed there, and some of the group’s most infamous members lived nearby.

A general view shows destroyed buildings near the East Raqqa front line.  - 1507608960 356 5760 - Raqqa: a journey into the destroyed heart of the Islamic State capital

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