Arts return to Syria's Raqqa after ISIS
RAQQA - More than a year after the Islamic State fled, Syrian boys and girls are back on stage, bobbing to the rhythms of drums in the northern city of Raqqa.
At the first cultural centre to open since the Islamic State’s draconian rule ended, sunlight flooded the new library and books lined shelves along a wall that smelled of wet paint.
After almost four years under the Islamic State (ISIS), which banned music and the arts, US-backed forces expelled the last ISIS fighters from Raqqa in October 2017 but it's taken time to resuscitate cultural life.
"I can't describe how happy I am," said Raqqa resident Fawzia al-Sheikh at the centre's opening. "After all this destruction and no arts or culture, we finally have a centre where we can (again) listen to songs and poetry."
In the Raqqa Centre for Arts and Culture's brightly lit gallery, paintings hang beside charcoal drawings, near sculptures of human figures.
In the concert hall, Malak al-Yatim stepped off stage after performing, exhilarated to be able to sing in public again. "I feel like a bird sweeping through the spring sky," he said.
Yatim said ISIS smashed his instruments and banned him from singing. "We were like nightingales in a cage. If we did anything, they'd chop off our head or whip us,” he said.
ISIS overran Raqqa in 2014, making the city its de facto Syrian capital and imposing a brutal interpretation of Islam.
Before ISIS arrived, the city had more than 20 cultural centres, the largest housing 60,000 books, but the extremists forced all the facilities to close, destroying books and paintings.
In the new centre's library, hundreds of volumes that survived adorn shelves. "These books you can see, we saved them from the ruins," said centre Director Ziad al-Hamad.
"During ISIS's rule, residents hid them wherever they could. When the city was liberated, they gave them back to us," added Hamad, who also sits on the city council's culture and antiquities commission.
The Kurdish-led and US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) expelled ISIS from Baghouz, its last scrap of Syrian territory, in late March.
While the jihadists have continued to claim responsibility for attacks in areas controlled by the SDF, including Raqqa, local artists have returned to their easels.
In the cultural centre's gallery, painter Amal al-Attar has work on display after returning from exile in Beirut. Among her works is a painting of a white boat adrift on an ocean and another of a home on the shoreline.
"It's like a rebirth," Attar, 37, said of the centre's opening.
Attar used to run a studio for artists but when ISIS overran the city they told her art was forbidden. She left 50 works behind when she fled to Lebanon.
"ISIS burned them," she said. "I can't forget what happened back then but this cultural centre will give us a new drive."