Syria's 'bride of the revolution' mourns freedom in al Qaeda's grip

Syria's 'bride of the revolution' mourns freedom in al Qaeda's grip
Civilians inspect the Immigration and Passport building that was damaged by what activists say was a Scud missile from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa, eastern Syria November 29, 2013.

BEIRUT - Syrians called it the "bride of the revolution".

The eastern city of Raqqa was swept by celebrations after residents woke up one morning in March to see the last batch of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad leaving.

Believing a new era of freedom had arrived, they promised to make Raqqa, the first and only city to have fallen completely under rebel control, an example of a post-Assad era.

"At the time we were all happy with the liberation, it was not important who was there. Raqqa was for all Syrians and all those who helped liberate it," said one of several residents and activists contacted by Reuters via Skype.

The euphoria did not last.

In the weeks that followed, prisons appeared in public buildings, electricity was cut off and shops were banned from selling tobacco, considered anti-Islamic by the ultra-puritan, masked Islamist fighters who began patrolling the city.

"They also closed the universities saying that because women are also taking lessons there it should be shut," said a resident whose son is a media activist and is now wanted by the Islamists.

Following a pattern seen across northern Syria, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) slowly tightened its grip.

"When Raqqa was liberated we thought now that the regime is out, the era of freedom has begun. People started cleaning the streets. We thought we were living a dream," said another resident who, like most Raqqa locals, declined to be named for their safety. "It was dream. They killed it."

The fighters took over government buildings, turning them into headquarters and prisons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an Armenian church in Raqqa was converted into an office and another into an administrative building.

The jihadi fighters carried out public executions in a main square, instilling fear among residents and stifling any possibility of protest.

During the day, only a few shops are open, selling basic foodstuffs. By nightfall streets are emptied, residents say.

"Electricity is cut off from the whole city; only their buildings have power. The whole city lives in the dark and they have the light," said an activist who fled weeks ago.

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