Interview: The Free Burma Rangers bring hope to Raqqa in May 2018
Updated: May 31, 2018
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Interview with Paul Curtis Bradley, May 19, 2018
By Seth J. Frantzman
Frantzman: Can you describe what you’ve been doing?
Bradley: Yesterday [mid-May] we were in downtown Raqqa and set up a new playground across from a blown up church in a city park. We sent the playground ahead by a couple of days with our team of guys and arranged with local SDF leaders there where to put the playground and they installed it and we came a few days later to dedicate it and do a children’s program and do a small medical clinic.
F: What was your overall trip?
B: We’ve done five missions here since 2016 and this one was following up on people we had met previously and commitments we made on our last trip in February. We dedicated two playgrounds, one in Raqqa and one in Tabqa, which were donated by our friends at Reload Love. This included a program for the kids at each site – singing, games, spiritual encouragement and some health education, as well as a gift for each one. We did programs at IDP sites, provided some support to local churches we’d met before and strengthened our relationships in the area. Our team includes two medics from Burma and so we were also able to provide medical care to IDPs. People who have no homes, cruising around and putting in these playgrounds and medical clinics and giving out small snacks for the kids and T-shirts and that kind of stuff.
there are more than 60 checkpoints between Erbil and where we ended up.
It was difficult to get there?
It was a miracle, there are more than 60 checkpoints between Erbil and where we ended up. We got stopped a lot by local authorities and our stuff was searched a lot, the worst we ever saw it; once you get across [to eastern Syria] we had the proper paperwork and permission and it was much easier to access the areas we needed to go.
It used to be clear sailing in Iraq?
We went through areas that used to be Kurdish [KRG] control and now its Iraq [federal] control and there is an alphabet soup of little groups controlling areas; we had friends in upper eschelons of Iraq government making contacts for us; we also have many army friends we were alongside in Mosul in 2017 and these relationships are often helpful as well. During the fighting it was easier for us to access because we were embedded with Iraqi Army and spent most of our time in the front-line. In the chaos of fighting and war, with IDPs fleeing, desperate medical cases, different groups helping, the focus was on winning the battle not controlling the border.
What are the major changes in Raqqa since liberation from ISIS last year?
We weren’t in Raqqa before it was liberated but since our first trip there in February, there are not a whole lot of changes; streets are cleaner, you can drive on some streets; rubble has been moved; it’s a shell of a city. It got hammered due to the airstrikes. I was speaking with some kids, two 15 year olds and a 12 year old; they had survived it, pretty amazing. I asked them about their hope for the future and two wanted to be teachers and one a doctor. It’s funny how resilient people are. There is a lot of tension though, between different groups. I don’t blame them, they were under crazy, religious restrictions for a while [under ISIS], people are afraid still. The feeling we got is it’s not a safe place still; that was ground zero for ISIS. They didn’t disappear, they blended in to the woodwork.
Did you see other foreigners, did you feel like you stood out?
We are aware of our position. There are only a few other foreigners there, such as MSF and a few others. Maybe on the outskirts there are some one-off projects like UNHCR.
Life hasn’t returned much. There’s no infrastructure, people doing the best they can. There is limited electricity
Were IEDs a concern?
I think anti-IED work might happen but there is Unexploded Ordinance everywhere, they run around flagging them with red ribbons. A normal post-war scenario. Life hasn’t returned much. There’s no infrastructure, people doing the best they can. There is limited electricity;
How would you compare it to Mosul, since my point of reference and experience is in Mosul?
It’s weird, the destruction there is different. It was more like airstrikes destruction. Buildings destroyed and stuff landed in the street.
Can you describe your overall mission:
You can find it on our website; http://www.freeburmarangers.org/
We were asked to come [to northern Iraq] originally by friends from the US, because of our ability to work in war zones, because we aren’t risk averse. They heard we are going to go where bullets and bombs are. It expended from Kurdistan and then Iraq through Mosul [offensive October 2016 to June 2017] and now here in Syria doing similar types of things helping in these areas. Our first mission to Syria was in June 2016, and we have been five times total.
We have medics two medics with us right now. We also have photographers and videographers and make reports to get the news out; we do programs focused on children and families, bringing help, hope and love to people while they’re in the midst of crisis; other team members help with logistics and admin.
Would you consider staying with the SDF longer?
Yeah, perhaps, but we don’t force our way, if we get invited we would pray about it and see about time and resources. The last thing we had considered was going to Afrin [but that didn’t happen].
How is Christian life? [There’s a photo of a church in Tel Tamer you put up]
It’s spotty. In Raqqa, we don’t know of any Christians but in Tabqa we met some.
And it’s Ramadan now, how does that affect things?
Ramadan is only for the fasting and for kids 12 and up; families still have to eat; the YPG has to eat too.
Who came with you, I saw the photos of your convoy, seemed like a bunch of people?
Five ethnic guys from Burma came with us; from a place where there is 70 years of conflict. They came many hours to love on these people because they are believers in Christ as well. and understand the situation of being attacked, understand the feeling of hopelessness that can come from constant war. It really blows the minds of local Syrians, when they share with them this love. Our team also included the Eubank family: Dave and Karen and their three children – Sahale (17), Suzanne (15) and Peter (12). Dave is founder and leader of Free Burma Rangers (FBR), Karen leads the children’s program and also homeschools the kids. All three kids help with the kids program and help make friends wherever we go; Sahale also helps with video work. There were three other Americans including myself who helps as a pastor, Dan Berg who helped with coordination and logistics and Hosannah Valentine who helped leading the kids programs and coordination and reporting. We also have two local staff, Dilshad, our Kurdish coordinator, and Mohammed, a former Iraqi Army soldier who we were with in the Mosul battle, and one Christian Syrian coordinator. Total, our group was about 17.
Dave Eubank adds a note view email
The people of Syria and all of us need hope and the story puts a light on hope and love for families there. It also is an encouragement I believe to people outside of Syria to see there are many ways to help .
You asked Paul about the difference between Mosul and Raqqa - We were not in the Raqqa fight but I was in the Mosul fight from east to west side - it was close in, house to house , crew served weapons- AT and MG as well as tank , BMP and artillery strikes . Air strikes too but very selective . It was a deliberate deadly house by house ,street by street combined arms fight . Isis was tenacious and inventive and we lost many men- my translator was shot next to me and died later, 3 others on our team were shot including me - we lost many Iraqi friends - the brigade we were with (36thof 9th AD) , had 105 BMPs when we started and we finished with 12, we had 6 of 40 Humvees left and on the last day and mine was hit multiple times so we finished with 5, we lost most our tanks and were down to less than 100 men per battalion in the fight. Also as the battle neared the end Isis began killing more and more civilians - mostly their own people - we were able to Rescue some and had some difficult fights to help them but many more were killed and as we got near the old city Thierry were dead bodies everywhere and often you had to drive right over them under fire . When the Mosul battle was over we went back to Syria in Feb 2018 to keep promises of help we had made on the 2016 Syria mission.
And when we got to Raqqa [this May 2018] it looked different - lots of damage but most by air strikes and not nearly as many bullet holes -nor signs of heavy close in fighting - there was ao but not as much as Mosul. My family and I plus two of our ethnic team members were in Syria in 2016 in battles leading up to Raqqa ( the ones to take Minbij) and then holding the line there )and it was a different kind of fight - the SDF more dependent on coalition Air than the Iraqis . They had less armor than the Iraqis and it seemed there was more stand off fighting . Towards the end deals were made with Isis in Raqqa and 4,000 Isis and family members were allowed to leave - another difference .
Now going back again you can feel the tensions between the different groups in Syria .