Life re­turns to Syr­ian town af­ter IS ousted

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

AL-HOL, Syria: Out­side her home in a town of north­east Syria, four-year-old Bay­daa scrib­bles on a leaflet of re­li­gious rules left be­hind by the Is­lamic State group as they fled ear­lier this month. Her face is adorned with make-up of the sort banned by the ji­hadist group, which was expelled from Al-Hol by a new US-backed coali­tion of Kur­dish and Arab forces that over­ran the area on Nov 12. The town was once a key waysta­tion for IS be­tween the ter­ri­tory it holds in Iraq and Syria, and its cap­ture was a strate­gic vic­tory for the new Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) coali­tion.

But it is also a chance for res­i­dents to breathe easy again. “My lit­tle daugh­ter Bay­daa has put kohl on her eyes and makeup on her face, which was for­bid­den when the ‘or­ga­ni­za­tion’ was here,” said Bay­daa’s fa­ther, Ham­dan Ahmed, re­fer­ring to IS. “I’m so happy not to see them in our vil­lage any­more,” the 39-year-old told AFP. When IS seized Al-Hol two years ear­lier, Ahmed re­fused to leave his home in the AlShal­lal sub­urb of the town.

As a re­sult, he was forced to abide by the group’s strict rules based on their harsh in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam. Women were forced to cover up com­pletely, and men to keep their faces un­shaved. Par­ents were or­dered to send chil­dren un­der the age of 12 to re­li­gious schools run by IS “to avoid pun­ish­ment or be­ing whipped”, the fa­ther-of-nine told AFP.

Trapped for Two Years

Else­where in the sub­urb, on the dusty sandy out­skirts of the town, 42-year-old Mariam fed a small herd of sheep by a row of mud houses, in­clud­ing her own mod­est home. “We left the vil­lage dur­ing the fight­ing af­ter shells landed in our food store. We lost grain for the sheep, lentils and flour and were left with noth­ing to eat,” she said. Even though the ji­hadist group is now far from her home, Mariam is still afraid they may re­turn and cov­ers her face with her head­scarf when speak­ing to strangers. She wears a long color­ful dress that is tra­di­tional in the con­ser­va­tive re­gion, but would not have met the stric­tures of IS. “When IS was here, any woman who left home with­out a face veil and black robes would face whip­ping,” she said. With IS gone, lo­cal res­i­dents who sur­vive mostly on agri­cul­ture and live­stock, are trick­ling back to check on their homes and their land.

“For two years, I couldn’t sow my land be­cause Daesh pre­vented us from leav­ing the ar­eas un­der its con­trol to get what we needed, like seeds and oil” for agri­cul­tural ma­chin­ery, said 44-year-old Hamid Nasser, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS. The cap­ture of Al-Hol and the sur­round­ing vil­lages was the first ma­jor vic­tory for the SDF, an al­liance of the pow­er­ful Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG) and Arab and Chris­tian armed op­po­si­tion groups. The al­liance is backed by the USled coali­tion fight­ing IS, and has re­ceived air drops of Amer­i­can weapons to sup­port its fight against the ji­hadists. Al-Hol in par­tic­u­lar was con­sid­ered a strate­gic win for the group, sev­er­ing a key route used by IS be­tween its ter­ri­to­ries in Iraq and Syria.

Re­li­gious Slogans on Walls

In the town, IS’ slogans and stric­tures can still be seen, par­tic­u­larly those en­cour­ag­ing re­li­gious prac­tice and the wear­ing of the veil. “Sis­ter in niqab, how won­der­ful and beau­ti­ful you are in your chastity,” reads one. On bar­ber’s shops, signs still hang read­ing “Dear broth­ers, shav­ing or trim­ming the beard is for­bid­den”. And on walls are slogans in­clud­ing: “In the caliphate, there are no bribes, no cor­rup­tion and no nepo­tism.”

For the SDF, the chal­lenge now is to se­cure the ap­prox­i­mately 200 towns and vil­lages, some of them home to no more than a dozen peo­ple, that it has cap­tured from IS in re­cent weeks and set up a new lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion. While the SDF is dom­i­nated by Kur­dish fight­ers, the re­gion where the force is ad­vanc­ing is ma­jor­ity-Arab, rais­ing po­ten­tial sen­si­tiv­i­ties. Else­where, the YPG has faced charges of dis­crim­i­na­tion against Arab res­i­dents, with Amnesty In­ter­na­tional last month ac­cus­ing it of “war crimes” in north and north­east Syria.

The rights group claimed Kur­dish forces had car­ried out a “de­lib­er­ate, co­or­di­nated cam­paign of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of civil­ians in vil­lages pre­vi­ously cap­tured by IS”. The YPG dis­missed those claims and has pointed to its strong ties with some Arab mili­tias to ridicule al­le­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion. SDF spokesman Talal Ali Sello told AFP that civil­ians were be­ing al­lowed to re­turn to cap­tured ar­eas af­ter they were cleared of ex­plo­sives, which IS fre­quently sows in ar­eas be­fore it re­treats. He said his forces are work­ing “on the cre­ation of a po­lit­i­cal body tied to a mil­i­tary en­tity that will oversee the lib­er­ated ar­eas in the com­ing pe­riod.” — AFP

AL-HOL, Syria: Two Syr­ian civil­ians chat with fight­ers from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) on the road lead­ing to the Al-Shal­lal sub­urb of this north­east­ern town in Syria’s Hasakeh prov­ince on Nov 19, 2015 af­ter they re­took con­trol of the area from Is­lamic State. — AFP

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