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As Many As 100,000 Civilians Trapped In Raqqa, U.N. Says


It is the capital of the so-called Islamic State, the heart of a caliphate that ISIS imagined would unite and rule the Muslim world. Now much of the city of Raqqa has been destroyed by U.S.-backed forces trying to push the remnants of ISIS out. As many as 100,000 civilians are still trapped inside the city. Matthias Behnke coordinates Syria programs for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and he joins us now from Geneva. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATTHIAS BEHNKE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the conditions inside Raqqa right now?

BEHNKE: Well, essentially what we're concerned about in the context of the offensive that you just outlined is that we've seen quite a number of civilian casualties. In fact, from 1 of June until the 28 of June we recorded 173 civilian casualties. And that's not by far covering everything.

MARTIN: Can people get out? Is there any way to flee at this point?

BEHNKE: People can get out, but it's quite complicated. They have to drive themselves way out of the city. The Islamic State has been preventing civilians from leaving. I mean, there are also reports of them using civilians as human shields in the context of the hostilities. So they're really trapped in between these warring parties. And that's really our key concern in all of this.

MARTIN: What happens - if we assume that the ISIS holdouts are kicked out because this battle is in its final stages, what happens to that city? What happens to the people who have already fled?

BEHNKE: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, the important thing is, of course, that people who do want to return, that they can do so in safety, in dignity. And it's not a given. The setup for how to govern Raqqa after the offensive is not really entirely clear, and who's actually going to be in charge and how that's going to work out. And obviously there again, you know, the concerns will be that the rights of people who are innocent essentially are being respected.

MARTIN: Does that mean the U.N. is concerned about the rights of civilians in Raqqa even if U.S.-supported troops take over there?

BEHNKE: There are some reports, quite worrying reports, about violations, abuses committed by the Syrian Democratic Forces - looting, abductions, arbitrary detentions and also recruitment of children.

MARTIN: Is that a Kurdish-led group?

BEHNKE: That is the Kurdish-led alliance, yes. And what we just hope is that everything will be done to ensure that the human rights of people in Raqqa will be respected. And the mere fact that some people have been living under ISIL dominance doesn't make them guilty or doesn't make them equal to having conducted the gruesome acts that ISIS has committed.

MARTIN: So this instability, this uncertainty about Raqqa's future is the microcosm of the larger uncertainty with what happens to Syria.

BEHNKE: Indeed. And that's going to be an important part for Syrians across the country, too. When there is finally an end to the war - and, of course, we should remember that there are more warring parties than the ones that we're focusing on in ISIL - Syrians will have to come to term with a devastating legacy of death, destruction. And they will have to find ways to come together again.

MARTIN: Matthias Behnke is Syria program director for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. He joined us on the line from Geneva. Thank you so much for your time.

BEHNKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.