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Islamic State is gone – but Raqqa lies in ruins

Islamic State’s brutal reign of terror in Raqqa may be at an end, but as the liberation of the Syrian city is celebrated in the streets the shadow of the group remains.

Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay has travelled into the heart of the extremists’ former capital – where little now remains but piles of rubble, and huge numbers of hidden bombs and explosives.

Ramsay, his cameraman Adam Cole and security adviser Mike Mawhinney are the first British broadcast team to enter the city since its liberation.

Here Ramsay describes the scale of the destruction and the joy in the city at the victory against IS:

This was a long, hard battle into the heart of Islamic State’s evil-filled core. Even on the outskirts of Raqqa the fighting was intense, destructive and deadly.

It is an eerie drive into a major town now utterly empty of civilians and any form of life other than soldiers.

IS have been defeated in Raqqa, but the city has paid a high price
Image: The battle against Islamic State has taken its toll on the city

The fighting has only stopped in the last few days. Most of Raqqa is now a silent witness to the force needed to destroy an organisation that planned and brought murder and mayhem from here, across the world.

As methodically as they can, the forces of the victorious multi-ethnic SDF use armoured bulldozers supported by armoured trucks to push into the rubble-filled streets.

Occasionally you hear the boom of an explosion. They will be hitting mines and booby traps here for weeks. But they are savouring the victory nonetheless.

Fighters of Syrian Demo/Purchasecratic Forces dance along a street in Raqqa
Image: Syrian Demo/Purchasecratic Forces fighters dance along a street in Raqqa

Soldiers pose for pictures and greet us with smiles and victory signs. Many look utterly exhausted.

Perwer (his nom de guerre) stood with me as we looked at one street that is a mass of destroyed buildings and rubble.

“I am from Kobane and it was terrible there but it is smaller, this is worse,” he said as we were enveloped in dust from a passing truck.

He smiled. “They said we couldn’t do this. We destroyed the Isis myth,” and clapped me on the back.

Syrian Demo/Purchasecratic Forces take control of the Al-Naim Roundabout in Raqqa

The destruction in the centre is quite incredible. The combination of airstrikes, artillery and street-to-street fighting an extraordinary demonstration in demolition.

:: The enormous costs of Islamic State’s demise in Raqqa

Some 90% of the city is destroyed but what has been achieved here by this force is not to be underestimated.

Around the roundabout where IS used to carry out public executions, leaving the bodies for days or weeks, a convoy of military trucks career around waving flags and beeping their horns.

IS carried out public executions on this roundabout
Image: IS carried out public executions on this roundabout

They are world famous now, but the women’s brigades of the Kurdish YPJ really are quite something.

They have been a constant and equal part of the victory here and in many other battles.

This was their opportunity to lead their own celebrations and to remember their own many dead.

Amongst those celebrating was Briton Kimmy Taylor. A fighter, she is pretty famous here and indeed worldwide.

:: The rise and fall of Islamic State in Raqqa

Kimmy Taylor is now famous wordwide
Image: Kimmy Taylor is now famous wordwide

She believes what has been achieved in this war by the women has sent a message to the world about empowerment and respect.

“I’m a revolutionary and I will go on. One day I will be martyred, but I go on,” she told me when I asked what was next.

“I want to go home for a bit and then do some work as an ambassador for what has been achieved. Then I want to return here and see this new society,” she said.

Members of the women's brigades of the Kurdish YPJ celebrate the victory over Islamic State
Image: The women’s brigades of the Kurdish YPJ celebrate the victory over IS

Islamic State is not finished as an entity for sure. Its ideology has leached across the planet through social media and hate-filled sermons.

But they have been smashed here; in Kobane, in Mosul and now in Raqqa. The costs have been terrible. But Islamic State has lost.

For me reporting that it really is quite something.

Sky's Stuart Ramsay says the city is silent
Image: Sky’s Stuart Ramsay says IS have been smashed in Raqqa

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    Calais migration crisis is ‘half UK’s problem’

    Migrants in Calais
    Image: About 700 migrants are still thought to be in the Calais region

    The French interior minister has told Sky News the migration crisis in northern France is the UK’s problem as much as it is France’s.

    Gerard Collomb was speaking as he visited Calais – the focal point for migrants – with French President Emmanuel Macron, and ahead of a key Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday.

    “It’s a problem between France and Great Britain,” Mr Collomb said.

    “It’s not just our problem or your problem but we have the same problem with immigration and, as the President said, we must welcome refugees but not welcome all the world.

    “We work together and when we will go (to) London after tomorrow we will talk about that.”

    Speaking to police and security forces in the town, Mr Macron said: “I am here in front of you, two days before a Franco-British summit.

    France's interior minister Gerard Collomb
    Image: France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb

    “And it is essential to come and experience the reality that you have been living for several months, several years, and to draw the consequences and convey in 48 hours, with Theresa May, several issues that we need to work on in our common management.

    “We must better manage the issue of unaccompanied minors, reinforce the police cooperation in Calais and with the countries of origin and transit, unblock funds to support important projects for the development of the Calais people.”

    Local charities estimate that nearly 1,000 people are still camped out in northern France desperately hoping to get into Britain, despite the demolition of the Calais jungle 15 months ago.

    Francois Macron in Calais
    Image: Francois Macron was warmly received by the people of Calais

    Just hours before the President and interior minister arrived, Sky News witnessed the daily attempt by some of the young migrants to access trucks bound for the UK.

    The demolition of the notorious jungle camp in October 2016, under the orders of Mr Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, significantly reduced the number of migrants concentrated in one area.

    However, many just dispersed to smaller camps across northern France.

    Others went to Paris, where numbers have dramatically increased.

    Calais remains a magnet for hundreds of young people determined to reach the UK.

    On Thursday, Mr Macron will call for a five-point plan to help solve the situation. It will include:

    A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in
    Image: A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in

    :: Better control of migratory flows
    :: A better welcome for asylum seekers
    :: Acceleration of the processing of asylum applications
    :: Working at EU level to ensure the laws of expulsion for failed asylum applicants are more effective
    :: Promotion of the integration of refugees

    In 2017, there were 100,000 asylum applications in France, which represents a 17% increase on 2016.

    Anecdotally, most in northern France are from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan in Africa, as well as a significant proportion from Afghanistan.

    Estimates of the numbers currently in the area vary, largely because they are moving all the time.

    The police have orders to prevent the pitching of tents. The consequence is a continuous game of cat-and-mouse which often leads to violent confrontations.

    Local charity workers, whose constant presence in the area gives them the most up-to-date understanding of the situation, say there are about 700 migrants around Calais and a further 300 or so to the east in Dunkirk.

    Government officials claim the number is smaller, with between 350 and 500 in and around Calais.

    In the hours before Mr Macron’s arrival, Sky News watched a small group of young African men as they attempted to stowaway in a refuelling lorry.

    We filmed from a distance as they ran towards the rear of the Croatian-registered vehicle. Four of them climbed into the rear trailer. The others looked for hiding places under the truck, and then gave up and ran off.

    Mohammas Maroufkhil
    Image: Mohammas Maroufkhil spoke to Sky News about his attempts to enter the UK

    Minutes later, we approached the driver who was aware of the migrants’ presence. He opened the trailer and two heads popped up from between the cargo.

    Abruptly, he shooed them away. Haulage firms are dealing with this on a daily basis.

    The single, privately contracted security guard at the fuel depot watched, apparently powerless.

    The other two young men could not be found but the driver seemed convinced that his vehicle was empty.

    In the woods up the road, not far from the old Jungle camp, we found 24-year-old Zahid Ullah Oryakhil from Afghanistan.

    He took us to see his bed for the night, in the undergrowth under a tarpaulin.

    The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants
    Image: The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants

    From his bag, under his stash of bread rolls – donated daily by charities – he produced his paperwork.

    Everyone has papers. It’s their proof that they exist. Often there is written testimony too – his has been translated into English by someone he’d met on his journey.

    It outlines his reasons for wanting a new home.

    “Taliban kill my brother,” one section reads.

    Among his papers is a newish document from the French government which states that Zahid’s asylum claim in France has been rejected.

    Sky News filmed as a group of migrants tried to break into a truck

    He has been told to leave France, but he is not forcibly deported.

    Nearby, another Afghan introduced himself as Mohammas Maroufkhil. His Afghan ID, tatty but neatly folded in a plastic bag, says he was born in 1991.

    “In 2010 I did asylum (claim) for the first time in Belgium. For nine years I was in Belgium. I stay in the camps, sometimes I stay with my friends. Always I try to make my life in Belgium because I have a problem in Afghanistan,” he explained.

    He said that he had applied for asylum nine times in Belgium and was rejected every time. After the fifth failed attempt in 2013, he went to what was the Calais Jungle and made it, on a truck, to London.

    Child refugees Calais

    “They deport me from the UK on 24 March 2014 and send me back to Belgium. But I come to Calais again, and I go to England again. I go out of the truck in England. Police catch me. They send me again to Belgium.” he says.

    He then tried for asylum four more times in Belgium and after the most recent attempt, he was given six hours to leave the country.

    He is now back in Calais to try to reach the UK for the third time. He explains that he’s heard rumours that the UK’s decision to leave the EU will increase his chances of asylum in Britain.

    Mohammas and Zahid’s stories demonstrate their determination but also point to a failing system.

    Asylum claims are rejected, in some cases repeatedly, but the claimants are not sent home or helped where they are.

    Volunteer firefighters attempt to extinguish blazing migrant camp in Calais

    Instead they are pushed out of one country to become someone else’s problem. It is happening all the time.

    Not far away from their woodland home is the £2.3m motorway wall which lines the port approach road.

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    Built in 2016 with British money, it was designed to keep the migrants off the trucks. But every day proves that it is useless.

    Down the road, at the end of the wall’s reach, another group shelter from the rain under a bridge. Sodden, miserable and desperate, they wait for their moment.

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