BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrians called it the “bride of the revolution”.
The eastern city of Raqqa was swept by celebrations after residents woke up one morning in March to see the last batch of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad leaving.
Believing a new era of freedom had arrived, they promised to make Raqqa, the first and only city to have fallen completely under rebel control, an example of a post-Assad era.
“At the time we were all happy with the liberation, it was not important who was there. Raqqa was for all Syrians and all those who helped liberate it,” said one of several residents and activists contacted by Reuters via Skype.
The euphoria did not last.
In the weeks that followed, prisons appeared in public buildings, electricity was cut off and shops were banned from selling tobacco, considered anti-Islamic by the ultra-puritan, masked Islamist fighters who began patrolling the city.
“They also closed the universities saying that because women are also taking lessons there it should be shut,” said a resident whose son is a media activist and is now wanted by the Islamists.
Following a pattern seen across northern Syria, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) slowly tightened its grip.
“When Raqqa was liberated we thought now that the regime is out, the era of freedom has begun. People started cleaning the streets. We thought we were living a dream,” said another resident who, like most Raqqa locals, declined to be named for their safety. “It was dream. They killed it.”
The fighters took over government buildings, turning them into headquarters and prisons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an Armenian church in Raqqa was converted into an office and another into an administrative building.
The jihadi fighters carried out public executions in a main square, instilling fear among residents and stifling any possibility of protest.
During the day, only a few shops are open, selling basic foodstuffs. By nightfall streets are emptied, residents say.
“Electricity is cut off from the whole city; only their buildings have power. The whole city lives in the dark and they have the light,” said an activist who fled weeks ago.
An activist from Raqqa, who has moved to the north-western province of Idlib, blamed the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel fighters for allowing the jihadis to take over.
“All the FSA cared for was stealing and accumulating money. From the first day of Raqqa’s liberation they left it to the Islamic State,” he said.
Residents say they know little about the fighters. They include Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Libyans, they say, but keep their identity hidden behind masks and avoid conversation.
“At first these masked gunmen were nice to people, they helped the people here,” said a resident in his 40s.
But then problems emerged, particularly after ISIL began executions of people who had supported the revolt and even helped the rebels take over the city.
“They began assassinating the leaders of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army. They burnt churches, destroyed statues in parks and also robbed museums, saying statues and imagery were against Islam,” said the father of the wanted activist.
“The bride changed. Instead of the white dress it was forced to wear black.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Philippa Fletcher