Najah al-Hamid ripped open her black abaya, almost hysterical in her relief as she and her children threw themselves at the feet of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-majority militia that expelled ISIS from Raqqa.
US-backed forces captured ISIS’ former de facto capital two weeks ago. After three years under the extremist group’s rule, and months of shelling in the campaign to oust the fighters, it is a miracle that the al-Hamid family are still alive. In the last days of the battle for Raqqa, an airstrike hit the five-story building they were living in.
The bomb hit the rear of the building followed by a rocket that struck the front. The family was already outside when the building collapsed – fleeing just in time to save themselves, but taking cover under the chaos that ensued to escape ISIS. After years of living through the group’s brutal reign, survival has become second nature to the al-Hamids.
Like many families who resided in ISIS-held territories, the al-Hamids spent their days holed up in a dark apartment – the curtains drawn to shield them from ISIS’ ever-present gaze, the children rarely leaving their mother’s protective embrace.
Only Haneen, Najah’s feisty daughter, would venture out in search of sustenance. She siphoned fuel from parked cars so they could cook. She scoured bombed-out buildings for food and water left behind by the deceased and displaced.
At the age of nine, Haneen was among the least vulnerable of the al-Hamid children. Her older brother would have been scooped up as a military recruit. Her 15-year-old sister, Shaimaa, was considered ripe for marriage.
One day, an ISIS fighter came knocking at their door. He told her father he wanted to take Shaimaa as his bride and would pay $10,000 for her hand. He was 58 years old.
Overhearing the conversation from the kitchen, Najah lunged at the ISIS fighter, pulling a knife on him. “Either you leave or I’ll kill you,” Shaimaa heard her mother say.
“Binti, binti (my daughter, my daughter) … what was I supposed to do?” Najah told CNN, in tears as she recounted the incident.
“I’m willing to get slaughtered for her sake,” Najah said during an interview in Ain Issa, where she now lives.
The ISIS fighter scurried away.
Home videos of survival
CNN returned to Raqqa shortly after the US-backed SDF declared victory over ISIS there. US President Donald Trump hailed ISIS’ defeat in its seat of power as “a critical breakthrough … with the liberation of ISIS’s capital and the vast majority of its territory, the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight.”
But in ISIS’ wake, CNN saw a city reduced to little more than rubble. Piles of gray rubble and charred, hollowed-out buildings replaced homes and schools. You could drive for miles without seeing even a flash of color.
Not a single building has been spared from the fighting. The side roads and fields are inaccessible, as teams sweep for the landmines, bombs and booby traps that ISIS is expected to have left behind.
Raqqa is one of the most bombed-out places in the international fight against the extremist group.
In Raqqa’s main square, ISIS carried out public executions and placed the heads of the dead on spikes. Raqqa’s stadium, which served as ISIS’ headquarters, sat above an infamous prison. Squat toilets were converted to solitary confinement cells and torture chambers for those who were caught violating ISIS’ draconian rules
Inside the Raqqa jail where ISIS held their betrayers
Families like the al-Hamids had little choice but to spend their days indoors, surviving on bulgur wheat and creating fun out of the little that they had.
The al-Hamids documented their survival in phone videos and photos that they later shared with CNN.
One of the photos showed the kids playing dress-up with an embroidered table cloth, shooting mischievous glances at the camera. Another showed Najah reading the Quran, something she says she never did before the arrival of ISIS. The photo would have served as a testament to the family’s piety, should ISIS fighter have ever happened upon it.
Another difficult moment captured on video involved a piece of meat, a rarity for near starving families. Haneen managed to talk an ISIS fighter into giving it to her during one of her food runs. The video showed the al-Hamid children forming a circle around the slab of meat, squealing with glee as they touched it, giggles filling the air.
Najah says they tried to escape this bleak existence many times. But they were shot at by ISIS, forced to return to the pitch-black apartment with no electricity.
“I swear to God, I will put a bullet in your head,” five-year-old Mays lisped, mimicking an ISIS fighter she encountered.
Now, the al-Hamids have two tents to call their home in a refugee camp set apart from the main camp for those displaced from Raqqa, and it is guarded by armed men. This is the camp where the SDF placed families it suspects of having been associated with ISIS. The al-Hamids firmly deny the allegations.
Still, they said they can’t complain. “Anything is better than living under ISIS,” said Najah.
She’s an avid smoker – ISIS banned smoking – and now she relishes every drag.
She joked that she’s grateful that she not only survived, but outlived the group without turning into an ISIS bride. “Thank God you didn’t die,” she said, nudging her husband. “They would have inherited me.”
The SDF says it will hand control of the city over to a recently created civilian council. But in the hodgepodge that is war-torn Syria, no one knows whose hands Raqqa will end up in or how it will be rebuilt.
For now, even as they enjoy the relative relief of the refugee camp, the lives of the al-Hamids are in limbo, their reality upended and their fate no clearer than that of their home town.