The battle for ISIS' de facto capital in Syria is nearing its end
But lives in the war-torn city are still being shattered
The closer you get to the last bedrock of ISIS, the more obvious their impact and the more frequent the sights and stories of loss and deprivation.
ISIS is on the verge of defeat here, its fighters surrounded and under fire. But military victory will not soon heal the families ripped apart by years of the oppressive caliphate.
Furat was just 15 when ISIS took control of his hometown, Raqqa.
“My heart couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle seeing this injustice and tyranny everywhere,” he said.
He ran away and later joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight the occupiers.
Now he is just a few miles from his old home, but his old life is gone.
He saw his family for the first time in years just the day before he spoke to CNN. They were fleeing the city as his unit clashed with ISIS militants.
He didn’t recognize them and they could barely recognize him. He had left a boy, he was now a man, a fighter.
“When I speak to them now, our conversation feels empty. There is nothing to say. I am not at ease and neither are they,” he said. “When we are safe and the battle is over, I can rejoin them again.”
‘We fight for peace’
For Inghazik, an SDF commander, her home may be gone forever. Like many in the SDF she believes it is her duty to rid Syria of ISIS, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris.
She was born in Raqqa but ISIS took over her family home to use as a fighting position. She may never go back.
“We fight for peace,” she said. “When it’s over I would like to live somewhere where Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Sunnis can live together. It used to be like that in Raqqa. Not anymore.”
Jagdab, just 17, tells how he recovered the body of a female fighter in Raqqa 20 days earlier.
She had stepped on a bomb and died on impact. Her legs were blown off and her face bloodied.
He wrapped her body in a blanket and carried her back to base.
It wasn’t until the next morning that he discovered that it was the body of his sister.
She was only 20 years old.
There was no time for him to pause, to mourn. This relentless war is not over.
Yet along with the grief, there is excitement.
Driving to the front lines in one of the few armored vehicles available to the Kurdish YPG militia that forms part of the SDF, soldiers play a popular tune aimed against ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“We will put Baghdadi’s head under our feet and we will be victorious,” the tune goes.
Artillery whizzes overhead, aimed at ISIS positions deep inside Raqqa. Holes have been punched in the 1,300-year-old wall encircling the old city to open it up to advancing forces.
The area still controlled by ISIS seems small, but many civilians are still trapped there.
“The comrades in this building told us they could see civilians in the home in front of them,” a commander named Ibo says as he points to a map on his tablet. “For seven days ISIS has cut off water and everything to them. The residents we rescued before told us ISIS said to them, ‘If you go out we will slaughter you.’”
There are few signs of life on the streets. A mute, elderly woman passes by with terror in her bloodshot eyes. 50,000 more souls are believed trapped behind enemy lines, many used as human shields.
Hundreds of US soldiers and Marines are close by, but they stay away from reporters.
Their involvement as the SDF’s closest allies is clear – from the artillery that pounds throughout the night to newly asphalted roads that speed Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces toward their goal.
And the involvement is welcomed as we became the first journalists inside the walls of the old city since ISIS took it over.
“You are Americans?” a smiling soldier asks in broken English. “I love the Trump!”
On the campaign trail last year, Donald Trump promised to wipe out the terror group.
That day may be getting closer, but the fighting is still intense. Families and neighborhoods are riven, and Syria’s multi-ethnic society has been torn at the seams.