Normal life has started to return to the Syrian city of Manbij since the last remaining "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) elements were ousted at the end of an extended operation that officially concluded August 12th.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Manbij Military Council (MMC), backed by coalition air power, succeeded in fully liberating the northern Aleppo province city last week, capping a military operation that lasted more than two months.
The liberation of Manbij is a major victory as it cuts off ISIL's supply route to the city of al-Raqa, which is still under the group's control, officials told Diyaruna.
But the final push to free the city was delayed for several days as ISIL elements had been using hundreds of civilians as human shields.
ISIL fighters were eventually allowed to withdraw on the condition they preserve the lives of the civilians, who were released upon their arrival in Jarablus.
Despite the fierce battles and destruction, about 150,000 Manbij residents were able to hold out in the city, preferring to stay put despite the scarcity of resources, Manbij native and human rights activist Munif al-Taie told Diyaruna.
"Tens of thousands of others fled to areas adjacent to the city under SDF control," he said.
Civilians used as human shields
By early August, al-Taie said, the liberating forces had seized control of roughly 80% of the city, and battles were confined to the "security square" in al-Sarb district, where ISIL prevented thousands of residents from leaving.
By blocking their escape from the city, he said, the group used them as human shields to protect itself from attacks and airstrikes.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents were living near-normal lives in Sabe' Bahrat neighbourhood, liberated near the beginning of the battles, he said. They were joined by residents of other areas who chose to remain in the city.
The last few days were especially difficult for the civilians in the security square, al-Taie said, as they were distributed among cars and other vehicles that ferried the ISIL elements to Jarablus in a 500-vehicle convoy.
"About 3,000 residents were led away at the time and were later released when the group reached Jarablus, where the group held on to six of the residents for unknown reasons," he said.
The battle to liberate Manbij and the surrounding area began May 31st and ended August 12th, MMC platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.
All types of military operations occurred during this period, he said, including aerial bombardment of ISIL posts and positions, ground military operations and direct confrontations.
The issue of ISIL using civilians as human shields during the last days of the battle complicated the military operation to free the city, Ibrahim said, as it would have endangered the lives of thousands of civilians.
The end of a nightmare
Following the city's liberation, Ibrahim said, SDF and MMC forces continue to sweep the city's neighbourhoods for mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left behind by ISIL.
"I never dreamed the ISIL nightmare would lift or that it would end some day," Manbij native Ayham Issa, 35, told Diyaruna.
"It is a great feeling to feel like you have come back to life again," he said.
ISIL occupied the city for more than two years, he said, during which time residents suffered all kinds of injustice, torture and killing.
"The last few days were a real nightmare for residents," he said.
Issa remained in the city during this time, he said, adding that he was fortunate that SDF forces entered the western part of the city where he lives early on, which eased the pressure on the local residents.
After that, he said, residents understood it was only a matter of time before the rest of the city was liberated, and a spirit of solidarity prevailed, with families sharing basic food items such as flour and setting up joint kitchens.
Manbij residents are determined to return life to normal very quickly, he said, noting that signs of recovery have begun to appear, especially in the areas that were liberated earlier on, where work to clear the debris has begun and shops have re-opened their doors.
At present, al-Taie said, living conditions in Manbij are tolerable and essential items are available, though residents do not have much money to spend due to the stoppage of economic activity and employment.
He called for relief and humanitarian organisations to intervene as a matter of urgency and provide assistance to struggling families.