When the end came, it was deafening. Fighter jets thundered overhead, rockets and artillery exploded, and buildings crumbled under the onslaught.
Abed Shaban and a dozen relatives and neighbors squeezed into a ground-floor bathroom, the only room with a concrete ceiling in the building where they sought refuge from the battle for control of Islamic State’s self-styled capital, Raqqah. Some prayed and read passages from the Koran. Others cried out as the earth shook and clouds of dust swirled around them.
For nearly four years, they had endured Islamic State’s crushing rules and gothic violence. But as the militants put up a final stand against a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian militias, Shaban wondered if any of them would make it out alive.
Raqqah, a once bustling agricultural hub on the northern banks of the Euphrates River, now lies in ruins, its entire population displaced across Syria and beyond. “Now there is only the smell of the dead under the rubble,” Shaban’s wife, Laila Ali, said sadly. “Everybody has left.”
The family recounted the horrors that befell their city — the public beheadings and crucifixions, endless airstrikes and wild-looking men with guns who would flog a person for smoking a cigarette — from an overflowing camp about a 2½-hour drive to the north. Wind gusted through their tent, coating everything and everyone with a gritty film of sand.
Raqqah was the first urban center to fall under the full control of the Sunni Muslim extremist group’s black-clad fighters in January 2014 following clashes with rival groups opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It was here that the militants forged their version of a modern-day caliphate, or Islamic state, which they broadcast to the world in slick propaganda videos.
To the thousands of foreign recruits who flocked to the city at the height of Islamic State’s powers, the militants promised an opportunity to practice their faith in its “purest” form and take part in what they described as a glorious battle against infidels. But to residents who disagreed with their extreme interpretation of Islam, the group’s reign brought only terror and isolation.
Schools were closed; satellite dishes and cellphones banned; and almost every aspect of life — what people ate, how they dressed, where they went and when they prayed — was tightly regulated.
“We were living in a big prison,” said Ali, who at 45 could not go to the souk to buy groceries without a male guardian.
It was worse than that, her husband interjected. “In most prisons, you can watch TV and use the internet, but not in this prison.”
Shaban, a gaunt man of 50 with hollow cheeks and a wry sense of humor, used to run a shop selling cooking gas. But he had to close the business when the militants tried to introduce a gold-based currency and ripped up all the Syrian banknotes they found on the premises. After that, he supported his wife and seven children by working as a day laborer.
Although the family did not want for food and other necessities, they chafed at the restrictions imposed on them. Checkpoints mushroomed across the city. At one Shaban might be asked to produce his car papers, at another, a certificate proving he had completed a course on sharia, or Islamic law — “this paper is more important than your ID,” he said.
Every day, it seemed, new rules were announced. Like many women in the Sunni Arab-dominated city, Ali has always worn a head scarf and long clothing when in public. But that wasn’t enough for Islamic State, she said.
First the militants demanded that women cover their bodies with loose fitting black gowns known as abayas. Then they were required to put on face-covering veils, gloves and socks. Finally, even women’s eyes were obliterated from view.
Even minor infractions could draw the attention of the feared religious police.
The couple’s 22-year-old son, Ali, was caught downloading a song onto his cellphone and whipped. (The phone was permitted at the time, but music was not.) The unit later accused Shaban of smoking because his teeth were yellow. He insisted it was because he drinks a lot of tea and had to gulp down an entire pot before they released him from detention.
“They were just looking to make problems with people,” he grumbled.
The couple kept their children at home as much as possible, especially their 18-year-old daughter, Rahma, who they feared might be forced to marry a fighter. But they could not shield the family from Islamic State’s brutality.
Children as young as their 12-year-old, Ahmed, were rounded up and forced to watch beheadings in Paradise Square, the infamous traffic circle that residents renamed Hell Square. The boy’s face lights up when he describes the crowds shouting at one victim, “He is the spy of the coalition!”
One of Ahmed’s cousins met a similarly grisly end when he was caught using a cellphone to call relatives in Brazil. He, too, was accused of spying for U.S.-led forces and was shot in the head. The family learned what had happened only when they found his body strung up from a lamppost.
As the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by U.S. air power, closed in on Raqqah over the summer, families like the Shabans were herded out of outlying districts toward the city center, moving into any abandoned house they could find. Those who resisted were shot. “We were human shields,” Shaban said.
Residents pleaded with fighters not to take up positions on their rooftops, for fear of the aerial bombardments that were certain to follow.
By the fall, the city was almost out of meat, vegetables and water. Long lines formed to draw water, which was strictly rationed, from freshly dug wells.
At that point, residents were pouring out of the city, braving a gantlet of Islamic State snipers and streets laced with mines to reach the advancing U.S.-backed forces. Shaban and his family tried repeatedly to escape, but were sent back every time at gunpoint.
After their fourth attempt, Islamic State fighters accused Shaban of being a smuggler and threw him in jail for a night.
“Every few hours, they were coming and putting guns to my head and saying, now we will kill you,” he said. Shaban told them he just wanted to get out of the city.
“Why do you want to leave?” he recalled them asking. “If you stay here with us, you will have a ticket to paradise.”
The next morning, he was flogged 40 times and sent home. It could have been worse, he said. Several other families who had tried to escape with him perished in an airstrike that night. “We were lucky they put us in a jail,” Shaban said.
A few days later, the airstrikes caught up with him, bringing a roof down on top of him. Neighbors pulled him from the rubble with only minor injuries.
The family heard rumors about a brief truce that allowed hundreds of civilians to leave the last sliver of territory still under Islamic State control along with 275 fighters and their families. But by this point, the family was too afraid to try again.
The last night was the worst, they said. From about 5 p.m. until 2 p.m. the next day, the bombing was relentless. “Until now, I don’t know how we survived,” Shaban said.
On Oct. 17, the guns and the bombs fell silent. Shaban opened the door a crack and peeked outside. Mountains of rubble filled the street, but the area appeared to be deserted. The parents gathered the few possessions they had left and set off in search of the liberating forces, telling the children to walk in their footsteps and not to touch anything, not even a tissue — in case it was concealing a mine.
Outside the stadium where Islamic State had made its last stand, they spotted a bearded man waiving at them in the distance and thought they had been caught again. They were about to make a run for it when Shaban’s wife recognized the man as an old friend. “You see the fear they put in our hearts?” she said of Islamic State. “He was just one man, and all of us were afraid of him.”
They thought the nightmare had finally come to an end when the friend pointed them in the direction of friendly forces who put them on a bus bound for the town of Ain Issa. But when they reached the camp that is now home to about 23,000 people, Kurdish forces pulled aside their two eldest sons, 22 and 16, and began questioning them about ties to Islamic State.
The brothers admitted that they were once hired to cut holes in walls so that fighters could pass between houses without being spotted by coalition drones. But they said they could not refuse to do the work, which lasted only a few days.
They were taken into custody for further questioning. An official with the civilian council charged with overseeing the reconstruction of Raqqah said intelligence officials would want to grill them for information about the militants but would probably release them after that.
There are fears that fighters could be hidden among the displaced civilians and plotting future attacks. For now, the Shaban family remains guardedly hopeful. But as days drag by with no word about their sons’ fate, they are growing increasingly alarmed.
“We went from one oppression to another oppression,” Shaban said bitterly.
Special correspondent Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this report.