Far from front line, volunteers prepare to rebuild Raqa
As US-backed forces fight to oust the Islamic State group from its last hideouts in Syria's Raqa, a city council-in-exile is already working to bring life back to its devastated home town.
From a buzzing headquarters in Ain Issa, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Raqa, Syrian engineers and lawyers are setting priorities for rebuilding their battle-scarred city.
"We know every inch of Raqa. All we need is the announcement of liberation -- which we expect to hear in the coming days," said 27-year-old Mohammad Hassan, an engineer and member of the Raqa Civil Council.
He laid out a map of the city, pointing out a pair of water pumping stations requiring restoration and major thoroughfares that will need to be cleared of rubble.
"We'll start on the outside and work our way in," Hassan said energetically.
Around 90 percent of Raqa has been recaptured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces since June, but much of the city has been reduced to ruins by heavy bombardment that has rendered whole streets unrecognisable.
Almost like a symbol of the RCC's eagerness to get to work, bulldozers for removing debris are parked outside its humble two-storey office building.
Founded six months ago by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting for Raqa, the RCC boasts more than 100 volunteers from the city and its outskirts.
Men and women of various ages, ethnicities, religious sects, and professional backgrounds, they are divided into 14 committees working on everything from re-opening schools to restoring water and electricity supplies and repairing hospitals and homes.
- First, the mines -
The first priority, said the head of the council's reconstruction committee, is removing a sea of explosive devices the jihadists have left in Raqa's streets, public institutions, and even private homes.
"This is a huge challenge -- we can't do anything else before getting rid of the mines," Ibrahim al-Hassan, a silver-haired engineer with thick-rimmed glasses, told AFP as he sat in his sparse office.
"The second phase is restoring the water and electricity networks. After all that, we can turn to the schools. These are the essential priorities."
Hassan said most building material would likely be imported from the neighbouring Kurdish region of Iraq, although he did not rule out supplies coming in from Syrian government-held areas in Aleppo or Damascus.
The bulldozers parked outside, Hassan said, were the first of a total of 56 machines the council is set to receive in the coming weeks as part of a grant from the US State Department.
Both the American government and the US-led coalition backing the offensive to recapture Raqa are involved in "short-term, quick impact projects" to bring Raqa back to life, said a US official involved in civilian operations in Syria.
They would include supporting de-mining operations in and around critical buildings like schools and hospitals, and providing food and health support once Raqa is recaptured.
"But we're not here forever to fix everything. We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here demining the homes," the official told AFP.
A second US official involved in emergency aid operations for Syria said the US had helped the RCC "pre-position" more than 900 tonnes of food -- including rice, beans, and wheat -- for immediate delivery once the Raqa offensive is over.
The operation has also earmarked water tanks, sewage trucks, and hygiene kits for tens of thousands of civilians expected to flood back into the city.
- 'A lot of pain' -
The European Union has also pledged some $3.5 million (three million euros) to fund de-mining projects, said RCC member Abdullah Arian, a lawyer from Raqa who visited Rome last month with other council members to solicit international funds.
"Raqa was destroyed so that terror would not hit Washington, Paris, or London," Arian told AFP.
Raqa gained a reputation as a key IS launchpad for overseas attacks.
"Those who took part in its destruction should be partners in its development," Arian said.
But RCC members say they cannot yet set a price tag for rebuilding Raqa because the ongoing offensive means they have yet to enter the city itself.
Arian and his six children, who were smuggled out of the IS-held city around 15 months ago, are waiting to see what is left of their home.
"Raqa won't be the same city that I left five years ago. There's been a lot of pain," says engineer Laila Mustafa, the RCC's co-chair.
She also urged the international community to shoulder the responsibility for rebuilding her home town, but ruled out a role for the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"On a personal level or working with companies (in government-held areas), we don't have any problems," she said. "But we won't deal with the regime, neither politically nor economically."