In Raqqa, the demining organisation ‘Rojava Mine Control Organisation’, known colloquially as ‘Roj’, has been clearing mines in preparation for the increasing number of civilians returning to their homes.
According to one of the team members, approximately 1,300 mines have been removed in Raqqa during that time, with a further 6,000 mines removed across parts of former ISIS-held areas such as Manbij and Shadadi in northern Syria.
In the midst of the festive season, Roj has also been attempting to remove mines in churches left behind by ISIS militants so that ceremonies can be held.
Churches such as the Church of the Martyrs and the Lady of Annunciation have been heavily destroyed by ISIS militants who used the buildings as a battleground during the fight against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ropes and religious artefacts are also missing, while walls have been heavily defaced and damaged.
Last week, Raqqa’s returning Christians celebrated Mass and led a procession through parts of the city for the first time in almost four years, with many reminiscing about Raqqa’s past.
“The bell used to be rung using a rope from the inside. My son and daughter used to serve at the church and Santa Claus used to come and give children presents,” said one man. “Those days were the most beautiful.”
Despite the work of Roj and the returning residents, however, the prevalence of mines still remains a key issue. Last Friday, seven people, all civilians, were killed when a landmine exploded. The deaths on Friday are the latest in a series of mine-related deaths that have taken place in the city since October.
Although groups like Roj have tried to de-mine the city, its personnel lacks the equipment and training to locate and defuse some of the more sophisticated explosives. The rising casualties and the delays in mine clearance, in turn, have led to protests from displaced Raqqa residents.