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Geopolitics

Raqqa Residents Describe Life Under Unmerciful ISIS Rule

By satellite phone and email, people living in ISIS-controlled Raqqa, Syria, say fighters have stolen their houses, killed family members and even forced them to pay rent on properties they already own.

ISIS fighters parading through the streets of Raqqa
ISIS fighters parading through the streets of Raqqa
Younes Ahmad

RAQQA The ISIS terror group has transformed Syria’s Raqqa province into what can only be described as an enormous prison. The Islamist fighters prohibit most people from traveling beyond the borders, even to other provinces, and communication with the outside world is limited.

Raqqa has also become a gathering place for the thousands of foreign fighters from dozens of countries who now dominate ISIS’s ranks. Locals say they have become virtual slaves to these extremist militants, who use brutal methods to maintain control. They also say that many have died at their hands, although the claims are impossible to verify. ISIS is also alleged to have seized thousands of houses from Kurds and others in the towns of Tal Akhdar, Tal Fandar and al-Yabisa, near the Tal Abyad area. These they have given to their fighters, who have come from around the world, including Uyghurs from China. Similar incidents have been reported in other parts of the province.

To understand what's happening inside Raqqa, Syria Deeply spoke by satellite phone and email with people living in the province. These are their stories.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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