The staggering observation when we were in Raqqa only recently was just how utterly, comprehensively wrecked it is.
As the end drew near, one foreign fighter, former City of London banker Macer Gifford told us: ”Sometimes I wonder what there is left to liberate in Raqqa.”
The city which was once the capital of Islamic State extremists in Syria has been left broken in every sense.
It’s now empty of civilians. In places, every single building, home, office and shop has been left shattered, torn, and crushed.
I took a short video on my phone and recorded 360 degree rubble on a terrifying scale.
And even as I was recording, there was the continual whistle of artillery and mortar fire all around, producing more dust and rubble.
:: Raqqa: Battle ‘over’ in Islamic State’s Syrian capital
Sky cameraman Martin Smith and I witnessed the fierce fight to retake the last remaining IS post in the city, which the militants had set up in the National Hospital.
We were told there could be a rump of IS fighters in the nearby stadium, but none of the soldiers on the ground appeared to believe that to be the case and all their efforts, firepower and personnel – both on foot and in the air – were directed towards the National Hospital.
I was shown a satellite image of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ positions, and all of them were clustered round the hospital.
The stadium was a few hundred metres away and left unguarded and untouched with no SDF units around them.
We ran into the room at the top of the closest building to the hospital, where about 20 to 30 soldiers had taken up position.
The troops were crawling between the windows because IS snipers were taking pot shots at them as they moved.
Despite the overwhelming stakes stacked against them, the IS fighters were not giving up. This was a fight to the death.
:: The enormous cost of Islamic State’s demise in Raqqa
One IS defector told me the group’s hierarchy had ordered everyone to leave the area in June when the campaign to reclaim Raqqa begun.
That was when he’d escaped, dressed as a civilian, his beard shaved off and with his young wife and child in tow.
He melted into a crowd of refugees/civilians who were also fleeing Raqqa.
Only the IS fighters stayed behind and many of them were foreign with nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, he said.
We witnessed an unrelenting barrage of mortar fire and artillery raining down on Raqqa and around the hospital.
:: The rise and fall of Islamic State in Raqqa
The extremists had dug tunnels to make their escape. They’d left behind them booby traps in buildings they’d occupied.
Just one or two militants moving around and changing positions frequently were keeping at bay dozens and dozens of troops spread out across a multitude of buildings.
The battle for Raqqa has been a curious mixture of high tech wizardry and dirty, dangerous rudimentary footwork.
The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), together with Arab and Christian soldiers, have had crucial support from the Americans and the British (although they don’t like to be pictured being too involved. We were ordered not to film Americans launching mortar attacks near our camping position).
This means the SDF soldiers have been crawling over ruined buildings and diving into homes which are now shells, armed with homemade grenades hanging like silver balls around their necks, AK47s slung over their backs but also an iPad or a phone which has satellite imagery of Raqqa downloaded onto it.
They used this to identify where they believed the IS positions were and then radioed that location to their US coalition partners who were not on the frontline.
The air teams and mortar units then launched their attacks, explosions following, crushing buildings, homes, offices and often lives.
Those Raqqa civilians we did find in the scattered refugee camps on the outskirts of the city were just as critical of the coalition forces and their hammer-smashing approach as they were of IS and its unyieldingly cruel governance, combining executions, amputations and whippings.
Victory against IS has been achieved, but it has left a city devastated beyond recognition.
We met a young Yazidi mother of three who’d escaped four days earlier from her IS captives.
She’d been held in Raqqa and then Deir al Zor.
She told us of being sold at slave markets several times to IS fighters calling themselves Emirs (Commanders). She was repeatedly beaten and raped by multiple male “owners” for three years, passed from one to the other.
I asked how she didn’t get pregnant. Her youngest is just three years old but she tells me blankly the sex slaves were given contraception.
Often they were also beaten by the Commanders’ wives who were jealous of their presence in the household.
“As a woman held by Daesh, they did everything with me,” she tells us, “and everything by force.
“They used to tell us, you are our sex slaves, our servants. You have to do everything we say and don’t question it. Just be quiet. We’ll do whatever we want to you.”
Her composure is staggering. She’s only 25. She only breaks down when talking of the abuse towards her children, sobbing for several minutes.
“I cannot forget what they did to my children,’ she says and then whispers: “I’m going to hunt them down. I’m going to get revenge.”
I can’t bring myself to ask her to tell us details of the abuse against her children. She mentions that they were beaten and I don’t press her about whether they were sexually abused and/or raped too. It’s just too painful for her.
She spoke of wanting to join the Yazidi unit of female fighters. This war against IS and those who carried out the atrocities isn’t going to end with the taking of Raqqa. The thirst for revenge is strong.
On the top floor of another hospital, we saw a group of four or five men smash at the outside walls, finally using explosives to blow through it.
They dragged a recoilles rifle up and pointed it at the opposite building where IS snipers were bedded in.
Martin set up his camera on the floor, wedged it between rocks and we hastily moved out of the room and crouched around the corner and behind a wall.
I’ve been close to a recoilles rifle firing before and know how loud and powerful they can be. And the soldiers were trying to fire this one indoors.
A few seconds later, there was a huge boom and around the corner came the back blast, a sheet of fire, cloud and power.
It was initially quiet but I realise now this was because the noise had deafened us.
Then the two soldiers who’d triggered the recoilles emerged through the smoke and were screaming in delight.
They hadn’t expected to survive it.
It seemed to symbolise this conflict – desperate, destructive and dangerous, with very little notion about what’s going to happen next.