Beheadings, crucifixions and bombs falling from the sky: Life inside the burned out 'ghost town' of ISIS capital Raqqa where 'prisoners' live amongst the rubble with no electricity or hot water

Daily Mail, UK/December 15, 2015

By Jay Akbar and Isabel Hunter

Crucifixions, beheadings and gay men thrown from tall buildings to a baying mob below. Piles of rubble and burned out shells where families once lived. No electricity or running water. This is the daily hell of those forced to live under ISIS in Raqqa.

The first thing father of three Mohammed sees when he leaves his home is ISIS's religious police, Hisbah, patrolling the streets, looking for people to punish.

'I'm afraid to lose my children, I am afraid that my wife will be flogged for not wearing the right clothes,' said the former teacher, 37, who was too frightened to give his surname.

He added: 'Things have changed from bad to worse under ISIS - the cost of food, there is no fuel or firewood.

'Water is available but it must be boiled and cooled. There are fruit and vegetables and bread, but prices are very high. Electricity became scarce and we had to start buying it because the current only comes in some districts [of Raqqa].'

He went on to tell activist group Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered [RBSS]: 'From 5am, I need to be at the mosque and I can't be absent.

'When I am there I watch the sky for aircrafts. Then I return to the house as quickly as possible to avoid arbitrary arrests. It's the same routine every day.

'I used to be able to teach students what I believed in. Now I am forced to teach them what I don't believe, what ISIS want me to. They stopped me giving private lessons which means I do not earn as much.

'It scares me in Raqqa that I can suddenly be arrested and never know the reason. I could be imprisoned and my family and wife will not know anything.

'But what scares me most is that ISIS is planting ideas in the minds of my children who I am forced to take to school.'

Tim Ramadan, am RBSS activist, told MailOnline how people there have to live under Islamic State's draconian laws.

'When you walk through the city, you see people being decapitated, their wrists tied with rope and their hands cut off or b
eing given lashes,' he said.

'We are stopped from leaving, forced to keep up the pretence that everything is normal here, when people are living in horror.'

Thousands of civilians like Mohammed, most of whom have no link to ISIS, live in Raqqa and have no means of escape. They are kept within the city's concrete wall parameter.

Women are banned from walking unaccompanied by a man in the street. They are prohibited from showing their hair. Smoking is forbidden and criticising the city's rulers in public is punishable by death.

Prevented from working, locals can no longer afford even the simplest of luxuries, like chocolate. Lines of starving people queue for food and water.

Alongside unimaginable tyranny and violence in the streets, people here live in constant fear of bombs falling from the sky.

First it was the US' airstrikes, then Russia's, and now France – reeling from the terror attack in Paris in November which killed 130 people – has joined in, along with Britain.

Shop owner Waleed, 34, told MailOnline: 'Life here was difficult after the American airstrikes, but now we have a bigger problem because the Russians don't make a difference between civilian and military targets.

'The regime bombs us more than before and two weeks ago there was a massacre of civilians in Al Bab [an ISIS city to the north-west] by Russian airstrikes. People here are terrified.

'They don't have any way to leave Raqqa because the [Syrian-Turkish] border is shut. If you need to leave you have to get permission from ISIS, which sometimes isn't that difficult to get, but now the Turkish border is closed so what's the point?

'Food is expensive now because we used to import it from Turkey but ISIS is trying to keep prices low and keep it under control. It is very dangerous to cross the border.

'ISIS are trying to not make the prices expensive because they don't want to make the people angry. The security situation is good, like before, but people are scared of the airstrikes.

'The life is normal, everything is normal and day-by-day people understand the dawla [the state], ISIS is in control.'  

It was not always like this. Raqqa was once one of Syria's most liberal cities.

It was a place where women were free to socialise with male friends, children spent their summers swimming with friends at pool parties and students spent weekends hanging out at Raqqa's trendy coffee shops.

But after civil war broke out and ISIS seized control of Raqqa, slowly, bit by bit, life began to worsen. Signs appeared forbidding people from smoking, and warning that adulterers and homosexuals would be executed.

By its secretive nature, the true barbarity of what goes on behind the concrete walls and road blocks erected by ISIS, is not known.

One of the few ways to get information out is to smuggle testimonies and pictures through activists like RBSS.

Abu, another anti-ISIS campaigner, told MailOnline: 'Daesh has killed and displaced so many residents, stole their homes and taken their furniture.'

The photos taken by RBSS workers go a long way to prove that. Where women would once be allowed to dress as they wished, they are now seen in flowing black robes that cover their entire bodies.

'You couldn't go to the doctor without your father or brother. You couldn't go out to just take a walk,' said Awa, who escaped from Raqqa.

'I just couldn't bear it anymore. Before, I had a boyfriend. I went to the beach. I wore a bikini.

'Even in Syria, we wore short skirts and tank tops, and all of this was normal. Even my brothers didn't care – I had no trouble from anyone.'

Syrian women like Asma, who grew up in Raqqa, were treated like second class citizens when ISIS took control, giving preferential treatment to foreign fighters and jihadi brides.

'The foreign women got to do whatever they wanted. They could go wherever they wanted,' said Awa, who admitted she joined the 'caliphate' because ISIS promised her money and power

'They were spoilt. Even the ones that were younger than us had more power,' Asma told The Times.

RBSS' pictures show Raqqa as it is today. In one photo, a cage used by extremists to hold and publicly humiliate 'offenders' stands empty on a dusty road.

In another, two women belonging to al-Khansa, ISIS' feared all female armed police unit, patrol the streets to punish those who violate Sharia law.
The veiled female force weed out rebel spies, dole out beatings and force girls to become jihadi brides.

'The al-Khansa battalion are a nightmare for women in the city of Raqqa,' Ramadan told MailOnline. 'Some of them worked as prostitutes before ISIS took over and only joined al-Khansa to get better wages or they were forced to after being arrested.'

A girl told RBSS how she was arrested and beaten with a club – because she wore the wrong kind of niqab. As punishment, the girl was lashed 50 times in front of her father and onlookers.

Those who manage to avoid the attention of the police, and who manage to get food on the table, are left to battle disease which is rife, according to Abu.

He told MailOnline how the lack of hygiene and ISIS' takeover of hospitals - executing doctors and forcing them to work at gunpoint - had led to the spread of disease.

He said: 'Many doctors have fled. There are some illnesses as a result of non-sterile water that people drink, such as diarrhoea and also stomach cramps. The health situation has worsened to the extreme.'

Those who are sick have to dish out for expensive medicine that offers no guarantee of making them better, said Essam, 33, who is also stuck in the prison that is Raqqa.

He added: 'Drugs are available but they are expensive, often sold at twice the usual price.

'The days here are devoid of any distinct activity. Some people are allowed to work and then you go home and sleep until another day without interaction with others.

'There is also no electricity on a permanent basis and if we measured the number of days where we have power over the years, the ratio is very slim.'

The airstrikes - which began with US-led coalition targeting places like Raqqa in September 2014 - have not only driven the doctors away, but have left the innocent people in Raqqa fearing for their lives.

Pictures show the remnants of a rocket propelled grenade lying on the road and thick smoke rising from the site of Russian bombing raids on ISIS command centres and residential areas, RBSS claim.

Abu said locals are afraid of Putin's airstrikes because they target 'anyone', but not those by the United States and its partners, because they are 'aimed at the headquarters of Daesh only'.

'The children feel scared when they hear the sound of planes and explosions,' Ramadan added.

But things could be about to get worse: Abu revealed ISIS fighters are so terrified of bombing raids that they now live among civilians - using them as human shields.

One woman, too frightened to give her name, said: 'This is the most dangerous city on earth and I'll tell you why – imagine yourself walking down the street while warplanes are bombing from above.

'Then a person is executed in front of you. You want to buy food for your family but you don't have enough money and your children cannot learn.'

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