'Help us find a life:' The terrifying reality of living under ISIS in Raqqa, Syria

Story highlights

  • Many living in Raqqa have nothing to do with ISIS, but live under the terror group's extreme Islamic laws
  • After the bombing from coalition forces, Raqqa has become a "ghost town" with no electricity
  • In Raqqa, schools, universities and government jobs no longer exist

It's notoriously difficult to get information out of Raqqa. ISIS monitors everything inside the city. Due to security concerns all of the information in this article has been provided by activist group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered and many of the sources are unnamed for their own protection. CNN cannot independently verify their information.

(CNN)Stonings and beheadings. Jihadi checkpoints at every corner.

School banned. Even small pleasures, like chocolate, are an unaffordable luxury because many cannot work.
    This is the everyday nightmare of life under ISIS for the people of Raqqa.
    "We are not living, we don't have a life," a 27-year-old woman in the city recently told the activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, one of the few sources getting information out of the northern Syrian city.
    Thousands of civilians live in the self-styled Islamic State's de facto capital city -- many of whom have nothing to do with the terror group.
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    They live in the grip of ISIS's hardline Islamic laws -- unable to escape because of closed roads and checkpoints, and aware of every word they write on the internet, which the group monitors, RBSS told CNN.
    Lately, the group says, in some neighborhoods, female ISIS patrols have started to stop and search women.
    The punishments for those who step out of line are brutal, and can be meted out far beyond Syria.
    And alongside the unimaginable violence and tyranny on the streets, there's also the horror of bombs falling from the sky.

    'A ghost town'

    The U.S.-led coalition began bombing targets inside Syria, including Raqqa, in September 2014.
    Since then Russia, France, and most recently, the UK have all sent war planes into Syria - with many strikes targeting the ISIS heartland.
    The 27-year-old woman, whose name we can't publish for her own safety, says her neighborhood was hit by Russian bombs -- and although most of it is still standing she says it is now "a ghost town" with no electricity.
    "I see nothing ... in the sky (there are) some drones," she said.
    France -- still reeling in the wake of terrorist attacks by ISIS that killed 130 people in Paris -- hit Raqqa hard in November.
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    Fighter jets bombed a command center, a recruitment center, an ammunition storage base and a training camp in the city, the French military reported - and some wondered if ISIS would abandon the city.
    But French bombs may have killed few of the militants. The terror group withdrew from its sites in anticipation of the bombing, RBSS told CNN. Streets were emptier and markets were less crowded than usual.
    And while several ISIS offices were hit by the strikes -- forcing the group to move around, RBSS co-founder Abdalaziz al-Hamza told CNN -- it appears the militants are staying put in Raqqa for now.
    One who did not escape was Mohammed Emwazi, better known as "Jihadi John,", the masked British terrorist who taunted the West and became an ISIS spokesman. He was identified by U.S. intelligence and killed in a drone strike in November.
    Many civilian buildings remain standing, he added, and ISIS fighters have been using civilians as cover, living in the same buildings and using schools as headquarters.
    "People are bearing the horror of the airstrikes because they do have hope that these strikes will be their salvation from ISIS," another RBSS activist told CNN.

    A more conservative city 'each morning'

    Raqqa was once one of Syria's most liberal cities.
    "You could do whatever (you wanted), smoke, wear whatever you want," Abdelaziz said.
    But things under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weren't perfect either.
    "(Under the regime) the security forces used to arrest people; now al-Husbah (the Islamic police) is doing so. We used to salute the president leader, now we are saluting the Califa," another RBSS activist said.
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    Then jihadist militants - including the then little-known ISIS -- overran the city in 2013, pulling down the statue of former president Hafez al-Assad and imposing hardline Islamist law.
    And things changed rapidly.
    Each morning, activists told CNN at the time, they seemed to wake up to a more conservative city.
    Rulings - known as "Bayanaat" - would appear on the city's walls, often limiting women's rights to walk alone or style or even show their hair.
    Other edicts came by word of mouth - smoking was banned, then cameras. Fear gripped the city, and behind most of it were the radicals of ISIS.

    'Help us find a life'

    Many in Raqqa say they don't want to live under ISIS but have no choice.
    "All the world should know that we aren't ISIS, we are the people most against them, we are the people that suffered most from their criminality," one RBSS activist said.
    "The Paris attack casualties, may they rest in peace, but a few hours of terror freaked the world out -- just imagine you are living under (ISIS's) authority for two years."
    Their dreams are the same as anyone else's -- to live a "normal" life.
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    But in Raqqa there are no schools or universities or government jobs now. Doctors, teachers and lawyers are unemployed and if they want to work they must first join ISIS, RBSS said.
    The lack of money means everyday items like bananas or chocolate are now a luxury - and water and electricity are turned on and off at the regime's will, the group added.
    But still people continue to hope for salvation from ISIS.
    "I want to enter university ... work and earn money, make a family and have a free country," the 27-year-old woman from Raqqa said.
    "Help us find a life," she pleaded.