MIDDLE EAST

An ancient city, destroyed
by war, is being rebuilt

By Michael O'Connor, City Mayors Senior Fellow

ON OTHER PAGES: Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone

To understand Leila Mustapha’s achievements it is necessary to remember the context of Raqqa. An ancient city with Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, Islamic and Catholic histories, the capital of ISIS captured territories from 2014- 2017. A city virtually destroyed and devastated by ISIS, the US bombing and the war to evict ISIS.

Leila, a civil engineer in her 30’s has been joint president of the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), an assembly since its creation in 2017 just before Isis was defeated to re-build and restore the life of the City.

Leila is a joint president with an Arab joint president. A remarkable attempt to bring together diverse communities to work together.

By 2017 and Isis’s defeat by the Syrian Democratic force, thousands of locals had been forced to flee, most buildings had been destroyed, there was no infrastructure, running water or electricity and few medical services. Its communities and civil life destroyed by ISIS.

Yet by 2020, Raqqa’s Museum, once the symbol of the city’s diverse cultural, religious and historical heritage was on its way to being rebuilt and restored as a symbol of Raqqa’s re-birth.

There is the reclamation of the equally symbolic Al- Naim square, once ISIS’s execution and killing ground, with thriving shops, small businesses and a busy day to day community life.

There is the gradual restoration of electricity and water supplies across the city, the re-building of hospitals, local health centres and schools. 

There is the restoration of homes, street markets, businesses and local community life, all of which contribute to the rebirth of Raqqa as people return gradually to try to re-build their lives.

Leila, as co-president of the RCC, has been the one consistent and significant figure in Raqqa’s rebuilding and revival since 2017.

In that time there have been three different Arab joint-presidents of RCC . 

Her tenure as joint president shows Leila’ s capability and tenacity to work across complex traditional, tribal, cultural and religious boundaries and conflicts to enable people of different status and levels of society collaborate and work together .

Her civil engineering background clearly helps her understand on a day to day how re-building issues need to be resolved on the front line of Raqqa’s reconstruction.

This understanding of micro issues also helps her deal with the issues and problems of re-constructing Raqqa at a strategic level within the RCC.

Her civil engineering background is clearly a major factor in the leadership she has provided to the Council as joint President, but it is her ability to communicate with people, that really makes her an outstanding leader. 

Her ability to communicate together with her commitment to work long hours in the RCC and on the front line of Raqqa’s reconstruction has undoubtedly made her someone people will listen to, want to work for and deeply respect.

In a society dominated by tribal rivalries and a tribal society dominated by Arab men, as a young woman and a symbol for all Arab and Kurdish women, Leila demonstrates on a daily basis with her communication and behaviour how traditional conflicts can be overcome by collaboration and a commitment to a joint enterprise.

After four years, this 33yrs old young woman, has provided inspirational leadership, but there are still many major issues no other City Mayor across the world faces.

In-spite of the devastation caused by ISIS and the war, Raqqa is not flooded with aid from the West. Indeed the Trump administration cut its aid programme in 2019.

More skilled engineers, construction workers are needed. More resources, machinery, building equipment and material are needed, much of the city remains in ruins and the water and electricity supply are intermittent.

More doctors, teachers and other skilled professionals are needed and the reconstruction is both slow and still dangerous with the remnants of ISIS mines across the city.

ISIS cells are still a danger and Syria’s Assad regime wants to reclaim Raqqa.

But Leila has the determination and courage not to be defeated by these major problems, obstacles and threats to life. She shows on a daily basis, through her energy and commitment how people from different levels of this society can work together both at strategic Civil Council level but also and perhaps more significantly on the front line.

As joint president Leila shows extraordinary energy and leadership by continuing to build coalitions of people to rebuild Raqqa. Her aim is not just to rebuild Raqqa but to help create a civil society built on democracy and re-conciliation.

In 2021, there are clear signs that Raqqa’s buildings and infra-structure are being rebuilt and that civil society and communities are once again functioning. The population continues to grow as people return, a sure sign of Raqqa’s rebirth.

No one person is or can be responsible for all these positive improvements, it requires many people to work together.

Leila Mustapha, a Kurdish young woman aged 33, stands out very clearly as the most consistent figure providing the leadership and the determination to bring people to work together to achieve Raqqa’s rebirth.

In her own words, in the film of her daily life and work, ‘9 days’, rubbing her eyes with tiredness, she says: “But the situation in Raqqa requires a lot of hard work. Our schedule is hectic. We are learning and laying the groundwork. I spend most of the day working. I had more free time before, I’d go to the market or out to eat. I’d go for walks but recently given the context things have changed.”


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