They escaped Islamic State's bastion but remain terrified

A Syrian displaced boy who fled with his family from the battle between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State militants from Raqqa city, carries his cat at a refugee camp Wednesday in Ain Issa town, northeast Syria.
Hussein Malla ~ Associated Press

AIN ISSA, Syria -- They have escaped their hold, but displaced residents of Raqqa still fear the militants of the Islamic State group, terrified they will return and seek revenge for defeats.

In one of the largest camps housing those who fled the northern Syrian city, survivors of the group's terror machine cannot shake off the horrors they witnessed in the group's self-declared capital. They described public killings, hangings, people thrown off roofs and other punishments for the slightest offenses.

For children, what they saw or heard of is ingrained into their minds like horrific fairy tales.

One girl around 12 years old described how women accused of stealing were immersed in boiling oil. With an air of excitement, she acted out the women being slid into a vat. Then another girl, slightly older, interjected to correct her and said, no, she had actually seen it, and just the women's hands were plunged into the oil.

A 10-year-old girl chimed in, saying fighters scolded her for wearing a red T-shirt.

"We were living under unimaginable psychological pressure; God only knows," said 39-year-old Fatima Mohammed. "There was a state of terror inside every home."

Mohammed said one scene set the tone for her for the three years under IS rule: a 14-year-old who had been accused of theft begging for his life as a militant raised a sharp knife over his head in a public square.

"He kept saying, 'I am innocent,'" she said. The boy tried to fend off the knife with his hands, she said, then the fighter finally shot him twice in the head.

"I could not bear it anymore," she said.

The next time a young man tried to break away from the group's grip, Mohammed risked it all to save him and helped him escape.

Nearly a dozen people spoke at the camp in Ain Issa, a town about 31 miles north of Raqqa. Most of those asked to be identified by their first name or no name at all, fearing IS retaliation against themselves or their families.

Most of them fled within the past three months as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have battled their way into Raqqa.

The Islamic State group enforced its radically bloody version of religious rule across the so-called "caliphate" it declared in Iraq and Syria.

Iraq's larger Mosul and Syria's more resource-rich Deir el-Zour were important administrative and economic hubs, but Raqqa stood out as the model where the group sought to impose most purely its stringent vision of "public morality," interfering in the smallest details of people's lives.

The resulting terror has been entrenched in the local population.

The escaped residents said many of the Islamic State group's members were fellow Raqqans. They said they feared IS members could be among the displaced people and could threaten them or their loved ones.

The police of the Kurdish self-administration government in Ain Issa arrested suspected IS members in the camp in a raid earlier this week

A resident who asked only to be identified by his first name, Abdullah, said he survived IS rule by "toeing a straight line."

"When you see a (person) being beheaded in front of you, won't you be scared?" Abdullah said.

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