As it faces mounting losses in Iraq and Syria, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) is attempting to tighten its grip on the border area between these two countries, which forms the backbone of its self-proclaimed "caliphate".
Residents of the Iraqi town of al-Qaim and the Syrian town of Albu Kamal tell Diyaruna they have been subjected to "flagrant violations" as ISIL struggles to maintain its control of the strategic border area and preserve its own mythology.
When ISIL overran Iraq's Anbar province in 2014, it removed barriers and checkpoints along the international border between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal, announcing these areas would jointly form its "Euphrates province".
Since then, the group has sought to heavily fortify the area, which is hilly with an abundance of natural tunnels, due to its importance as a main supply line, training location and weapons storage site.
Many local residents have fled for safer places in Iraq or Syria, but those who remain in the vicinity of the two towns are trapped by ISIL and say they fear for their safety amid the group's increasing ferocity.
In early November, an al-Qaim native who successfully escaped his hometown for al-Rutba told Diyaruna the group's fighters have been committing "flagrant violations" against both Iraqi and Syrian civilians.
The man, who spoke with Diyaruna on condition of anonymity out of fear for his family’s safety, said "these terrorists are completely devoid of humanity. They are ferocious monsters in the form of humans".
"They have turned our town into a large prison and they are doing the unthinkable there," he said. "They have executed our youths, the elderly, women and even children who failed to escape their stranglehold."
Some local residents have been slaughtered, others burned and still others drowned or stoned to death for daring to oppose the group, he added.
Earlier this year, he said, he witnessed ISIL elements beheading four men they had accused of being spies in al-Qaim market, noting that "spying" is a standard accusation ISIL uses to stamp out people who object to its "barbaric behaviour".
He said he had been given 40 lashes because he violated ISIL's smoking ban, while public punishment, including amputations, is meted out to those "who do not grow their beards or whose hair or clothing does not appeal to the group".
"We lived in prehistoric times with no communication, no televisions and no cafes," he said.
"Under such tyranny, people are suffering from deplorable living conditions as a result of unemployment and shortages in food, medicine, drinking water, electricity and fuel," he said. "Only ISIL members have everything they need while locals are left with nothing."
Since ISIL overran al-Qaim, roughly two thirds of its population has fled the area, according to its mayor, Farhan Fitaikhan.
"ISIL has imposed suffocating sanctions on the remaining residents and bans anyone from leaving the city," he told Diyaruna. "Those that do are punished with the most gruesome of deaths."
Residents have been killed, tortured and denied their rights, he said.
"Terrorists have nearly destroyed everything in the town so it would be harder to restore normalcy after liberation," he said. "They burned down state buildings, infrastructure and residential homes and they stole people’s personal belongings."
"We hope liberation will come soon," he said, adding that after this happens, the border with Albu Kamal must be secured and sufficient forces must be deployed.
"The information that we receive from our sources in these two towns tells us that locals are executed on a near daily basis," al-Khalidiya district municipal council head Ali Daoud told Diyaruna.
"On October 27th, the group executed eight men in a public square in al-Qaim close to the border with Albu Kamal for unknown reasons," he said, adding that no one knows whether the victims were Iraqis or Syrians.
ISIL’s military weight is thought to be concentrated in al-Qaim and Albu Kamal, he said, adding that coalition warplanes have been striking ISIL targets along the border area .
'Nothing but death'
"Life in al-Qaim and Albu-Kamal under ISIL has become unbearable," Daoud said, adding that the group has been denying people their individual freedoms, prohibiting people from playing sports and women from leaving their homes.
People are being stifled under these conditions, he said, pointing out that the most basic standards of living are lacking, and "everything is prohibitively expensive".
Health, education and public services are no longer available, he said.
"Simply put, there is nothing but death."
"Residents living in al-Qaim and Albu Kamal are related by blood, and now are also sharing the same fate of living under a harsh terrorist group like ISIL," Anbar provincial council member Athal al-Fahdawi told Diyaruna.
"ISIL uses violence with the people there and we often hear about mass executions and forced detention and harassment of people, with a complete standstill of everyday life," he said.