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Story Publication logo August 28, 2017

How One Syrian City Is Rebuilding Life After ISIS


Still from PBS NewsHour broadcast, August 16, 2017.

The Syrian war: We see the headlines, but know far less about the people caught in the conflict's...

Little ones in a house being restored in Manbij, Syria, one year after the town's liberation from ISIS. Image by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Syria, 2017. 
Little ones in a house being restored in Manbij, Syria, one year after the town's liberation from ISIS. Image by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Syria, 2017.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we conclude our three-part series about fighting ISIS, and life in northern Syria.

The country has been ravaged by war. Many parts now lie in ruin. In the north, the grip of ISIS is slowly receding. But what happens once ISIS has been pushed out? How does a community rebuild?

Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon traveled to Manbij, a city that was liberated from ISIS control last year. This story, as well as last night's story about the role of Syria's Kurdish population in the struggle against ISIS, was done in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: In a neighborhood that looks like this, one front door is hard to miss.

Why the color blue?

ABDULKADIR ALI ABOUD, Manbij Resident (through interpreter): Because it's the color of happiness.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Abdulkadir Ali Aboud is a construction worker, born and raised in Manbij, northern Syria. His home in the neighborhood of Hasani was hit by an airstrike in the fighting that pushed ISIS out exactly one year ago.

ABDULKADIR ALI ABOUD (through interpreter): It's been two months since we began renovations. When we first saw the damage, we were sad. But then we realized we'd escaped the injustice of ISIS, and it was worth it. Everything can be made right.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: As the fight to defeat the so-called Islamic State pushes forward, the question of what comes next comes up again and again. One year on, this town offers a look at the possibilities — and the pitfalls — when it comes to rebuilding and restarting after ISIS.

Manbij was an ISIS stronghold and saw some of the most savage fighting of the three-year fight. But returning life to normal takes time, and pushing ISIS out is just the start. For the past year, residents have struggled to rebuild.

Ibrahim Qaftan leads the executive council of Manbij, working to get services to residents.

IBRAHIM QAFTAN, Manbij Executive Council (through interpreter): We are done with the military side. We escaped ISIS at home. But we still need civil services. People are looking for public services more than anything else.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The challenges remain, the city still has no phone service. But compared to one year ago, he says, Manbij has made great strides, in health, governance and education. And he says there are lessons to be learned, as the diverse population of Manbij, both Arab and Kurdish, has pushed forward together.

What is the lesson the world should learn from Manbij?

IBRAHIM QAFTAN (through interpreter): Brotherhood, national brotherhood. For the world to succeed, we must act like brothers. To us, Armenians, Turkmen, Alawites, Druze, are all part of Syria. We want them all to be one family. This is our main lesson.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: But brotherhood is fragile amid the pressure of war. The city's population of around 200,000 has doubled, with the arrival of displaced families from across the country, Qaftan says. And tensions have emerged.

The Aswad family arrived here two months ago after fleeing the ongoing violence in their home city of Raqqa. They've taken up residence here in a relative's Manbij home. But, they say they've faced discrimination, particularly from other Arab residents, who see that they're from Raqqa and treat them like ISIS sympathizers.

NAYEF ASWAD, Displaced Raqqa Resident (through interpreter): When we first arrived and said we are from Raqqa, they immediately judged us. They accused us of being ISIS. Yes, we lived in Raqqa, but we were helpless. We didn't deal with ISIS, we just went to work and that was it.

ASWAD'S MOTHER (through interpreter): When we go to the bakery, people complain that there's no bread left, because of the refugees from Raqqa. Nothing is like home. We hope it will be freed and we can go back.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Shervan Darwish, of the Manbij military council, has witnessed these internal divisions and challenges, ever since the battle that liberated his city.

SHERVAN DARWISH, Manbij Military Council (through interpreter): The start of liberation was a challenge. It is hard to organize a city that was ruled by terror for two years. And after we freed Manbij, we need to clear the city from the ISIS ideology.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The fate of Manbij has also been complicated by another factor: geography. The town sits just 25 miles from its watchful Turkish neighbor. It lies on a fault-line within Syria: the regime of President Bashar al Assad to the west, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces to the east, and an ISIS insurgency, that is on its heels, but far from gone, Darwish says.

SHERVAN DARWISH (through interpreter): Turkey is trying to destabilize us. The regime also wants Manbij. ISIS is still here and also working against us. For a year, we have not had any internal disorder or attack from inside, but we have had attacks from outside.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Despite a year without ISIS, Turkish military incursions remain a threat. Turkish air strikes killed Syrian Democratic forces near Manbij last year, and the city remains a flashpoint between the U.S. and Turkey. U.S. forces now regularly patrol the city.

Back in Abdulkadir's neighborhood, talk of war amid the renovations.

Rafiq Fouad Ali, Abdulkadir's cousin, is mourning his younger brother, killed last month on the Raqqa battlefield. He shows us pictures.

RAFIQ FOUAD ALI, Lost his Brother Fighting ISIS (through interpreter): I am proud my brother was killed by ISIS, I'm proud of him. We want to defeat injustice, and remove the ISIS name from everywhere.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: He says he will shortly leave Manbij, and return to battle himself.

RAFIQ FOUAD ALI (through interpreter): I don't mind being killed, if it gives the young generation proper life and education. It is not about ourselves. We must improve the future of the next generation, not ours.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Abdulkadir, too, focuses now on the next generation — doing his part to restore their future, and paint over their past.

ABDULKADIR ALI ABOUD (through interpreter): ISIS would hang people for three days in the circle, and the children would see them. I tried not to let them see such things, and I painted the walls blue, so they would forget about the black darkness. I want happiness and joy for my children and neighbors.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: He says restoring his house helps him share that joy, and create new memories.

You have paint on your hands, you've been working all day, how does it feel after this day's work?

ABDULKADIR ALI ABOUD (through interpreter): Life is going well, thanks be to God. My greatest joy has been overcoming ISIS. And we hope for a bright future. As long as we are over these thugs, we are doing well.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: One year on, he says, he and his city have both made a good start at something better. And as the fight against ISIS nears its end in Raqqa, the story of Manbij is one many will look to for inspiration.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, in Manbij, Syria.


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