CNN's Arwa Damon and Gul Tuysuz crossed into the town of Tal Abyad in Syria
The town's residents described what life was like under a two-year rule by ISIS
Now Kurdish YPG forces are in control of Tal Abyad, but locals remain wary
Taking God’s name in vain could lead to prison; smoking cigarettes, a public lashing; playing cards, being locked in a cage for days.
That was life under ISIS for residents of Tal Abyad, a dusty town on the Turkish-Syrian border and a gateway to the area of Syria ruled by the extremist militants.
Signs of ISIS atrocities lurk close to the surface here.
A traffic circle surrounded by a black fence seems non-descript, but talk to residents and they describe it as the “roundabout of death.”
It is here that the harshest of punishments meted out by ISIS were executed. Beheadings, shootings and lashings, all part of ISIS’ brutal interpretation of Islam.
Just down the road from the traffic circle sits a white cage. One man was put in the cage for three days, a resident says, simply for getting caught playing cards.
Kurdish forces have now liberated the frontier town but ISIS’ merciless reign of terror is still evident in its semi-deserted streets.
Anticipating a violent battle between ISIS and advancing Kurdish YPG forces, most of Tal Abyad’s residents fled to neighboring Turkey.
The Kurds had expected it would take them weeks to defeat ISIS in Tal Abyad. In the end, victory took just two days.
ISIS simply packed up and left for its stronghold of Raqqa, about 100 km south.
Now clusters of people can be seen on Tal Abyad’s street corners. Residents – mostly men – gather on some, while others are occupied by YPG fighters.
There is a wary acceptance of the new force in town, but the Kurds will need to prove themselves to the town’s Arab population.
A handful of vegetable vendors peddle their wares off the back of a truck and on the road. Customers rummage through large plastic bags filled with eggplants, cucumbers and other fresh produce.
Once readily available in this rural area, these were brought in from another town two hours’ drive away.
The people gathered here don’t want to talk on camera. They say they have relatives in Raqqa, where ISIS is firmly in control.
“If my family was safe you would not even believe the stories I would tell you. I would tell you everything,” a man told us.
Just down the road, cigarette cartons are stacked chest-high. During ISIS’ two-year rule the sale and smoking of cigarettes was banned.
“If you were caught, for each cigarette, each single one, you would get fined 1,000 lira (Syrian pounds – roughly equivalent to $4.60),” the seller told us. “And you would get lashed.”
Other punishments took place out of public view.
The town prison is deserted, the stench of sewage emanating from its solitary confinement block.
There is no one around to tell us who was held here or why, save a single piece of paper detailing the detention of a man in 2014 who was said to have taken the name of God – Allah – in vain.
In one of the ISIS security buildings, the militants’ black flag still ominously dominates the walls.
A shelf is still stacked with official ISIS notepads, one of them a form to be filled out by an individual taking responsibility for the crimes of another – for example a father whose daughter was not properly dressed.
‘They kept dressing us in black’
It is fear of reprisal that made Mahmoud Darwish veil his three young daughters – now aged between 5 and 8-years-old.
Darwish’s family took shelter in Tal Abyad after being displaced by the war raging in Syria. He had moved his family from Aleppo to get away from the merciless battles being waged between rebels and the Syrian regime.
Tal Abyad came under ISIS control a short while later. Rather than flee to neighboring Turkey, the family chose to stay – begrudgingly obeying ISIS’ draconian laws. For a family with little money to begin with, the militants’ rules on covering even young girls was a financial drain.
“Did you think it was free? Money,” Darwish mutters tersely. “They would take money from us and dress them.”
There is a sense of unease in Tal Abyad that emanates from the adults. Most of their answers are short, laced with anger and frustration. Their bitterness is not directed at anyone in particular, but seemingly just at what life has forced them to endure and the uncertainty they continue to face.
The children appear to have been spared some of that anguish, or perhaps in the case of Darwish’s three daughters, the difference lies in their elation at being outdoors without a headscarf.
Without their veils for the first time in two years, the young girls have a sense of joy in stark contrast to adults – who know their future remains uncertain.
Darwish’s 5-year-old daughter twirls her yellow skirt, as her older sisters, Amine and Shuruk talk over the top of each other. The little girls describe how ISIS turned their school into a base and forced them to wear black headscarves.
“They kept dressing us in black,” Shuruk said. “When ISIS was here we were not happy.”
But now, they say, they are happy. One can only hope it stays that way.