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Unveiled Secret How Syria's Raqa resisted IS rule

IS has been ruling Raqa with an iron fist since 2014, imposing its draconian interpretation of Islamic law.

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A displaced Syrian child, who fled the area surrounding the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqa, is photographed at a temporary camp in the village of Ain Issa play

A displaced Syrian child, who fled the area surrounding the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqa, is photographed at a temporary camp in the village of Ain Issa

(AFP/File)

Secret dates, dead-drops and "bullet-free" maths lessons: these are just some of the ways residents of the Islamic State group's Syrian bastion Raqa resisted years of jihadist rule.

IS has been ruling Raqa with an iron fist since 2014, imposing its draconian interpretation of Islamic law on the northern city's 300,000-strong population.

But as a US-backed offensive broke into an eastern district of Raqa on Tuesday, residents have been telling AFP how they spent years quietly resisting jihadist orders.

Sami, 24, met 22-year-old Rima six years ago, when Syria's uprising broke out with anti-government protests across the country.

"We used to meet up, talk in the street, sit together in public spaces," Sami told AFP, using a pseudonym to protect himself as he was speaking from Raqa.

But when IS took over, everything changed.

Raqa and Tabqa in northern Syria play

Raqa and Tabqa in northern Syria

(AFP)

The group deployed its hisba (religious police) units across Raqa to enforce dress codes and a ban on interactions between unmarried people of opposite sexes.

Sami and Rima were forced to take their relationship underground.

"We started being afraid of IS's patrols, so we tried everything. We wrote notes to each other that would be delivered by young kids," he said.

With satellites and private internet connections banned, Sami used IS-run internet cafes to send Rima electronic messages, which she could only read hours later when she visited a similar cafe.

The system was a romantic take on the system of dead-drops typically used for covert communication among spies.

'I wanted to die'

Sometimes, the couple even took the risk of arranging public rendezvous to steal furtive glances of each other.

"She would tell me, for example, that she was leaving the house at a certain time. We'd agree to meet at a shop," Sami recalled.

Rima would enter the store in the full black face veil mandated by IS, but Sami always recognised her.

A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces photographed in the town of Tabqa, about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa on April 30, 2017 play

A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces photographed in the town of Tabqa, about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa on April 30, 2017

(AFP/File)

"I would come in and we'd talk a little bit before a Daesh guy would come in and ruin everything," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

One morning, their luck ran out. As Sami watched helplessly from a distance, hisba officers detained Rima in the street because "her clothes were not up to par".

"I was so angry and I began crying, but she was signaling to me not to approach them. I wanted to die at the time."

Rima's parents said they would give their blessing for her to marry Sami only if they fled Raqa together, but financial difficulties have kept him in the northern city.

Thousands of people have poured out of Raqa as US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces edged closer to the city limits.

'Ticking time bombs'

When IS overran Raqa, it also seized control of one of its most valuable resources: its schools.

As it has done in other cities, IS replaced the traditional curriculum, including classes on physics and chemistry, with religious courses and its own macabre twist on arithmetics.

"Studying maths became about counting rifles, pistols, explosives, and car bombs," said a former public school teacher in the city on condition of anonymity.

The IS group has been ruling Raqa with an iron fist since 2014 play

The IS group has been ruling Raqa with an iron fist since 2014

(AFP/File)

One subject taught children how to carry out suicide attacks and boasted about the "virgins" with which the attacker could be rewarded.

"These courses turn students into ticking time bombs," said the teacher, who refused to work in the IS-run institutions.

Parents, too, stopped sending their kids to school, fearing they would be brainwashed.

Instead, they reached out to former teachers, asking if they could hold secret tutoring sessions at home on biology, English and bullet-free arithmetics.

Teachers would arrive at a student's home at an agreed-upon time for private or small group sessions, but instructors would avoid full-sized classes to stay under the radar.

"The teachers who are doing this live in constant fear. But we feel like we have a duty to society and to a child's right to a violence-free education," the former teacher told AFP.

One father has reached out to a close friend and teacher, asking if he could tutor his sons, seven and nine.

"It's scary for us to think that our kids could start thinking like Daesh -- talking about takfir (radical Islam) or slaves or virgins," the parent told AFP.

"This is destroying an entire generation."

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