Returning Syrians find Raqa city unrecognisable
RAQA - Bashar Hammoud thought he knew his native Raqa like the back of his hand, but a months-long offensive against the Islamic State group has scarred the Syrian city so badly he can barely recognise it.
Hammoud, a 26-year-old member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, was floored when he entered the battered northeastern district of Al-Rumeilah on Monday for the first time in years.
"I used to come here a lot because my uncles lived here and the college of literature, where I studied, was here," the bony member of the SDF's media office says.
"I don't even know where we are. If I got out of the car now, I wouldn't know how to go back. It's all gone. I know we're in Al-Rumeilah -- but where in Al-Rumeilah, I don't know," he says.
The district's two-storey homes have been smashed to the ground by bombardment.
Fighters from the US-backed SDF -- which broke into Raqa in June after spending months encircling the city -- are roaming the rubble-littered streets, but no civilians are in sight.
When a pair of air strikes send consecutive booms echoing across Al-Rumeilah, Hammoud furrows his brows.
His family home lies in Al-Maarri, an IS-held district about 500 metres (yards) to the west, and he has not seen it since fleeing Raqa in December 2014.
"Standing or destroyed, my only wish now is to see my home, but I know that that neighbourhood hasn't been liberated yet," he says.
"My comrades told me hopefully today, it will be liberated. If my house is gone, it'll be a shock to me."
- 'Colours are coming back' -
More than three years after IS declared a self-styled "caliphate" across swathes of Syria and Iraq, the SDF's Arab and Kurdish fighters hold around 90 percent of its one-time de facto Syrian capital Raqa.
The Raqa natives among them say it has been dizzying to see neighbourhoods they had known for years being called different names by people who lived under IS's iron fist.
An area called Al-Hukumah -- "government" -- has become known as Al-Hikmeh, or "wisdom." The Al-Bassel Mosque, named after President Bashar al-Assad's older brother, was renamed Al-Nur.
And most infamously, the Al-Naim roundabout where IS carried out beheadings and crucifixions was renamed "Al-Jaheem" -- the Roundabout of Hell.
At the eastern entrance to the city, Hammoud points to two large triangular flags hanging from a metal frame: one belonging to the SDF, and the other to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
"There used to be a big black flag there with the phrase everyone knows -- 'the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.' Now look at the SDF flag. Colours are coming back to Raqa," Hammoud says.
Still, the once-bustling neighbourhood just ahead is jarring for him: "I was shocked when I came here. The shops are empty. It's like we went back 100 years."
Farther along the route lies Al-Meshleb, the first district that SDF fighters entered in June -- and the neighbourhood where Fahed al-Meshlebi grew up.
At the time, Meshlebi was living in a displacement camp north of Raqa and decided to join the SDF's battle against IS.
"I haven't gone to Al-Meshleb yet. I want to finish here first," he says, his thick tangle of hair pulled back from his eyes by a colourful bandana as he stands on the western edge of Al-Rumeilah.
"I don't know this neighbourhood anymore. The street I used to know here has been completely wiped out," Meshlebi says, saying he could barely make out "hints" of familiar shops or landmarks.
- Blown away -
Unlike Hammoud and Meshlebi, Khaled says he saw what was left of his home in the western district of Al-Daraiyah.
The 39-year-old SDF fighter is originally from Al-Maskanah, a town in neighbouring Aleppo province, but spent his childhood summers in Raqa, where he met his wife and married in 2005.
"Raqa was the Euphrates' bride," Khaled says nostalgically, describing nights sitting along the Euphrates River in the city's south with old friends.
He fled Raqa with his wife and children as IS overran the city and, after several weeks fighting alongside the SDF, entered his own neighbourhood last week.
"I was blown away, to be honest. This isn't my neighbourhood. I went to my house -- this isn't my house," Khaled says.
"Now, there's nothing but corpses... If you don't know how to cry, come to Raqa to learn."
But he didn't have the heart to tell his wife, who spent her whole life in Al-Daraiyah.
"I told her the house is still standing -- our things are where they were, the pictures are still hanging on the walls. I said God had somehow protected our home," he says.
"What else could I say? Let her live this lie."