Breathing a sigh of relief after liberation from ISIS
DAMASCUS - Kobane, Palmyra, parts of rural Raqqa and, lately, Manbij in Syria have experienced the common frenzy of being liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS) rule and breaking out of the restrictions imposed on them by the jihadist group.
Similar to other cities freed from ISIS, joyous celebrations broke out amid the ruins of Manbij after US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by allied air strikes, ousted the militants after a two-month battle.
Ibrahim al-Said danced with joy in Manbij square despite the loss of his home and shops that were destroyed in the fighting.
“I lost my properties but I won my freedom and life is returning to the city. ISIS destroyed everything and imposed on us regulations that were strange to us,” he said.
Said told of a 16-year-old Moroccan from ISIS who beat an elderly man in the mosque under the pretext that he was not praying in the right way. “I wished I could smash the lad but this would have cost me my life,” he said. “That is why all these joyous celebrations are natural reactions to the oppression exerted on the people.”
Men cut off their beards, women burned niqabs and walked in public with their faces uncovered for the first time in more than two-and-a-half years or defiantly smoked cigarettes in public. All those actions would have been unthinkable under ISIS rule.
“What they (ISIS militants) did to the people was horrifying. No one was safe. Men, women and children were lashed in public for any kind of reason from ‘religiously’ incorrect clothing to collaboration with the regime and the Kurds,” said Manbij municipality member Ghoussoub Rajab.
“When women took off the niqabs and burned them in the street, they were erasing a legacy that was imposed on them,” he said, adding that young women were wearing modern clothes that they did not ever wear before ISIS took control of the city.
“There is obviously a strong reaction in defiance to everything that ISIS banned,” Rajab added.
The children of Manbij also had their share of the traumatic oppression. Ansam, 12, was forced to watch her father being bloodied by lashes in the market square because she was walking with him without wearing the Islamic dress. “I still remember that incident and shiver with fear,” she said. “Thank God that we got rid of ISIS.”
Once the city was liberated, hundreds of cars and vehicles carrying families and their belongings returned from makeshift camps and villages in the countryside.
“Manbij has removed the black cloak of injustice and darkness replacing it with that of freedom and light. The local council is working hard to reactivate institutions and restore basic public services which ISIS mercenaries have completely wiped out,” said Farouk Mashi, president of the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council.
Even after defeat, ISIS sows fear in the city. “We are afraid of ISIS. We dread their presence in the region and the possibility that they would reattack Manbij, as they did in Kobane more than a year ago, killing more than 150 people,” said resident Abdallah Idriss.
The return of displaced residents is happening slowly because of thousands of explosives planted by ISIS. “We have already dismantled 6,000 mines but thousands are still there, inside houses, and in the streets, in addition to tons of garbage and wreckage caused by ISIS when they burned more than 500 civilian cars to make smoke to cover their withdrawal from the allied planes,” said an SDF commander, who requested anonymity.
He said 30,000 residents had returned to neighbourhoods that were not destroyed.
“The city has no running water and no electricity,” he said. “Those who have returned are struggling to secure their needs of food and water but we hope to bring in basic assistance in the coming days.”
Media activist Mohamad Khatib blasted international humanitarian organisations for failing to assist the returnees. “We have contacted many organisations asking for emergency assistance in food and medicine but received no response. That is why we have set up a humanitarian fund for Manbij and started collecting donations for the city’s returnees from inhabitants of surrounding villages that were not damaged in the fighting,” Khatib said.
Amid the devastation, Manbij had its first wedding since being freed from ISIS. This wedding party was different from those under the militants. Men and women danced the Dabke together, which would have cost them their lives only a few weeks earlier.
Mohamad Issa, the mayor of Tal Abyad, which was liberated from ISIS a year ago, noted that “wedding parties and celebrations of special occasions are being marked as in the past and even more excessively in defiance to the pressure and bans that were imposed by ISIS”.