Syria Crisis

On Raqqa Frontline: Kurds, Arabs, Italians Close In On ISIS

Kurdish-led forces advance with hopes to recapture the ISIS capital. Together with Arab and foreign fighters, they share a common enemy. But what happens when ISIS is gone?

Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa
Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa
Giordano Stabile

RAQQA Commander Jihad Khabad, a tough and slender man with a well-kept beard, is holding a radio in his left hand and scanning a tablet with a map of the old city center of Raqqa. His men are stationed in buildings on the frontline between the Al-Sinaa and Rafiqah neighborhoods, a few hundred meters from the old city walls, hunting for snipers who appear suddenly out of side streets.

Whenever a gunman is spotted, often with surveillance drones, he is eliminated with rocket launchers. "At night they hide in tunnels," the commander explains. "Then during the day they start popping out all over the place, even in neighborhoods that have been freed. Every movement is a danger. Under every stone there could be a mine or a trap-bomb. We have more wounded every day."

"Tension reigns'

From the terrace atop a three-story building, you can watch the battle unfold through the holes in the rampart. The entire neighborhood of Al-Sinaa, conquered by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a month ago, is still a battleground of explosions, sniper shots, and more powerful detonations. In order to get to advanced positioning, Toyota SUVs from a rearguard base in Al-Mashalab, a couple of kilometers to the east, serves as transport hub. It's full throttle through the streets covered in rubble, from gutted houses to blackened automobile carcasses. There isn't a living soul for as far as you can see, with local residents long since fled.

ISIS militants in Raqqa Photo: Dabiq/Planet Pix via ZUMA

There are some 20 soldiers in this frontline position. About two-thirds or more are Kurdish, the others are Syrian Arabs from the Raqqa area. The commander is a Kurd, and needs an interpreter to communicate with all his troops. Tension reigns. At 29, the Kurdish commander is in charge of the most crucial area of the frontline, the gateway to the old city center. Just last month, ISIS killed his predecessor, Gya Kobani – a true leader, beloved by the Kurdish guerilla fighters, respected by all. "They were able to locate his position with one of their drones," said one Kurdish fighter. "They started hitting us with mortar shells, in the end a car bomb killed him."

ISIS is a monster opposed to all our ideals.

That is why the old city walls have been inaccessible in recent days. The section that was conquered two weeks ago contains the historical building Qasr al-Banat, Palace of the Ladies, the crown jewel of the year-long campaign by anti-ISIS forces to win back the Syrian city declared the capital of the Caliphate.

Kurdish and Arab forces are two worlds that don't seem to mix despite efforts by U.S. military advisors. On one side you have Marxist-Leninist guerilla fighters who call each other comrades and are shaped by Abdullah Ocalan (the jailed Kurdish nationalist leader) and rigorous discipline similar to that of the Vietcong. And on the other side you have Bedouin fighters, the majority of whom are from the large tribes of Shammar, natives of Saudi Arabia, pious and traditional Muslims.

United against ISIS

The only thing that unites them is their hate for ISIS, especially for their foreign fighters. "Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians, Chechens, and Russians," Ahmed, a bulky Arab fighter in a bandana, lists them off, one-by-one. He recounts how he was trained, "for five months," by the Americans, while living in the Al-Sinaa neighborhood with his family, parents, three wives, and children (he couldn't specify how many exactly). "They killed my mother because she did not want to marry off one of her daughters to a foreigner," he says. "They killed two of my nephews, one was 13 years old. So now I will cut their throats." He says ISIS, is caught in a trap: "They are dead, they can't escape, we will kill them all." His family, those who are left – who knows who, is still "over there", in the old city center.

At night, it's the Kurdish YPG "special forces' that reign. Around two or three the temperature goes from 45 °C (113 °F) during the day to 25 °C (77 °F). The guerilla fighters have night vision goggles and move according to intelligence information gathered from coalition airplanes and drones. All ISIS fighters can do is hide. The YPG have been trained "for months and months' 29-year-old Claudio Locatelli. A native of Curno in northern Italy, he explains that he used to be "an activist, a freelance journalist, and a barkeeper." Now, he is part of the YPG "International Brigade" modeled after those who fought in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. There are Danes, Germans, Americans, and Canadians. They have come for the "Kurdish cause" and to destroy ISIS.

A "democratic Syria" where "Kurdish and Arabs, Muslims and Christians' can live together on equal ground.

"I got a tattoo for those who died in Paris, and another one for those who died in London," Locatelli says, "But the thing that pushed me the most to come here was the massacre of the Yazidi, the raping of an entire population, that's what ISIS is, a monster opposed to each and every one of our ideals. I couldn't limit myself to activism, to reporting; I had to fight."

The International Brigade is among the units whose duty is to conquer territory, "one building at a time," a long yet constant battle. "We move ahead 100, sometimes 200 meters every night. If all goes well, this will be over in a month, at the most two," says Locatelli.

In the northeastern part of the country, the stated goal now is a "democratic Syria" where "Kurdish and Arabs, Muslims and Christians' can live together on equal ground. But there are not only ethnic tensions, there are also resources — including oil and minerals — that various players are eyeing. This is the great concern of post-Raqqa. "What will America do? Are they going to sell us out to Turkey?" Firas Dar, a PYD leader wonders.

But not even America knows. A former special forces official "Dan" who was part of the team who captured Saddam Hussein in 2003, is now a "contractor" in Kobani. He is sure that the Kurds will not push for independence "because they know that after 10 seconds Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would attack them."

In the end there could be "an agreement with the Assad regime," notes Dan, so long as a battle doesn't break out between Americans and Russians for control of the border between Syria and Iraq. These battle lines were drawn in the sand 100 years ago by Sykes and Pico (Asia Minor Agreement), and have largely shaped conflicts in the Middle East ever since. And they won't end with the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!