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Displaced al-Raqa natives return to liberate their city from ISIS

By AFP

At the outskirts of the Syrian city of al-Raqa, Khalil al-Hussein and his colleagues in the Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to go to the front, dreaming of returning to his home in the jihadist stronghold he fled a year and a half ago. [AFPTV]

Khalil al-Hussein fled the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIL) group's Syrian stronghold al-Raqa 18 months ago, but now he is back and fighting to help oust the extremists from his hometown.

The 25-year-old is one of several members of a Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting ISIS who are originally from the northern city.

The Syrian Democratic Forces began an operation to capture al-Raqa last year, and finally entered the city earlier this month.

It was the first time Hussein had been inside his hometown since he fled, following years under terrifying ISIS rule.

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Smoke billows from buildings in the northern Syrian city of al-Raqa on June 18th during an offensive by Syrian Democratic Forces fighters to retake the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' group's bastion. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

"I fled al-Raqa because the crimes of ISIS became too much to bear: the punishments, the decapitations, prison, insults," he told AFP.

"I want to find my house again whatever the price -- even if I have to die," said Hussein, who lived in the city's eastern district of al-Rumeilah.

When the SDF broke into al-Raqa city for the first time on June 6th, Hussein was among their ranks.

"I want to liberate my city from ISIS," he said passionately, standing on the city outskirts, his head wrapped in a green scarf.

"I am not just here for my house, I am here to liberate my city's people."

'Beautiful memories'

Located in a remote desert region and bordered to the south by the Euphrates river, al-Raqa was little known internationally before the country's conflict erupted in March 2011.

It was the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition, but ISIS jihadists seized it from opposition fighters in 2014, and transformed it into their de facto Syrian capital.

Since then, it has become synonymous with the group's worst atrocities, a place of public executions and prison sentences for such "crimes" as smoking or wearing jeans.

But the city still holds a special place in the hearts of its natives, including Hussein, who smiles when he talks about it.

"There is nothing more beautiful than al-Raqa," he said, his eyes shining.

"I have beautiful memories of the pretty streets, the generous residents and the co-existence between communities."

Al-Raqa had some 300,000 residents before the war, most of them Sunni Arabs.

But the population was also about 20% Kurdish and included thousands of Syriac and Armenian Christians.

Hussein signed up with the SDF after fleeing al-Raqa, joining the ranks of its Kurdish and Arab fighters, many of them like him from al-Raqa city.

'We will free al-Raqa'

At his side, on the outskirts of the city, his fellow fighters discuss the unfolding battle, in which the SDF has so far captured four neighbourhoods, two in the east and two in the west.

Hussein's al-Rumeilah neighbourhood, however, remains under ISIS control.

Some of the fighters smoke, while others take photos of the city.

A group join hands, some with weapons slung over their shoulders, and dance the traditional Middle Eastern "dabke" to celebrate their advances.

"We feel great joy," said Abu Saleh al-Hindawi, a fighter who commands Arab members of the SDF.

He is also from al-Raqa, and participated in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government when it began in 2011, before later joining the SDF.

Walid al-Khalaf, perched on a pick-up truck and bearing an automatic weapon, is also originally from the al-Rumeilah district, and left last year.

"I have not seen my house for eight months. I cannot describe how I feel," the 28-year-old said.

"I left my house with nothing but a blanket and mattress."

Now, he has a single thing on his mind.

"We will free al-Raqa, and God willing the battle will not last long," he said.

"And wherever the jihadists go, we will pursue them."

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