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article imageFighters from Syria's Raqa battle to oust IS from their hometown

By Delil Souleiman (AFP)     Jun 20, 2017 in World

Khalil al-Hussein fled the Islamic State group's Syrian stronghold Raqa 18 months ago, but now he is back and fighting to help oust the jihadists from his hometown.

The 25-year-old is one of several members of a Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting IS who are originally from the northern city.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces began an operation to capture Raqa last year, and finally entered the city earlier this month.

It was the first time Hussein had been inside his hometown since he fled, following years under terrifying IS rule.

"I fled Raqa because the crimes of Daesh became too much to bear: the punishments, the decapitations, prison, insults," he told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"I want to find my house again whatever the price -- even if I have to die," said Hussein, who lived in the city's eastern district of Al-Rumeilah.

When the SDF broke into Raqa city for the first time on June 6, Hussein was among their ranks.

"I want to liberate my city from Daesh," he said passionately, standing on the city outskirts, his head wrapped in a green scarf.

"I'm not just here for my house, I'm here to liberate my city's people."

- 'Beautiful memories' -

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces scans the sky in Raqa's Al-Meshleb neighbourhood on Ju...
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces scans the sky in Raqa's Al-Meshleb neighbourhood on June 7, 2017, as they fight to retake the northern city from the Islamic State group

Located in a remote desert region and bordered to the south by the Euphrates river, Raqa was little known internationally before the country's conflict erupted in March 2011.

It was the first provincial capital to fall to rebels, but IS jihadists seized it from opposition fighters in 2014, and transformed it into their de facto Syrian capital.

Since then, it has become synonymous with the group's worst atrocities, a place of public executions and prison sentences for such "crimes" as smoking or wearing jeans.

But the city still holds a special place in the hearts of its natives, including Hussein, who smiles when he talks about it.

"There is nothing more beautiful than Raqa," he said, his eyes shining.

"I have beautiful memories of the pretty streets, the generous residents and the coexistence between communities."

Raqa had some 300,000 residents before the war, most of them Sunni Arabs.

But the population was also about 20 percent Kurdish and included thousands of Syriac and Armenian Christians.

Hussein signed up with the SDF after fleeing Raqa, joining the ranks of its Kurdish and Arab fighters, many of them like him from Raqa city.

- 'We will free Raqa' -

Smoke billows from buildings in the northern Syrian city of Raqa on June 18  2017
Smoke billows from buildings in the northern Syrian city of Raqa on June 18, 2017

At his side, on the outskirts of the city, his fellow fighters discuss the unfolding battle, in which the SDF has so far captured four neighbourhoods, two in the east and two in the west.

Hussein's Al-Rumeilah neighbourhood, however, remains under IS control.

Some of the fighters smoke, while others take photos of the city.

A group join hands, some with weapons slung over their shoulders, and dance the traditional Middle Eastern "dabke" to celebrate their advances.

"We feel great joy," said Abu Saleh al-Hindawi, a fighter who commands Arab members of the SDF.

He is also from Raqa, and participated in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government when it began in 2011, before later joining the SDF.

Walid al-Khalaf, perched on a pick-up truck and bearing an automatic weapon, is also originally from the Al-Rumeilah district, and left last year.

"I haven't seen my house for eight months. I can't describe how I feel," the 28-year-old said.

"I left my house with nothing but a blanket and mattress."

Now, he has a single thing on his mind.

"We will free Raqa, and God willing the battle won't last long," he said.

"And wherever the jihadists go, we will pursue them."

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