“This is the moment we were waiting for,” said the 23-year-old SDF fighter, fixing the flag carefully with his right hand in the metal fence lining the Al-Naim traffic circle.
IS once spiked the severed heads of its opponents on the same fence and burned books and cigarette packs in the middle, prompting residents to rename it the “Roundabout of Hell” during the three-year jihadist reign over Raqa.
The US-backed militia declared full control over the city on Tuesday after quashing IS from its final holdouts in Raqa’s hospital, national stadium, and Al-Naim.
With their yellow flags in hand, SDF fighters flooded the roundabout in a symbolic moment marking a victory many have been working towards for months.
Kobane lost his left hand in the 2015 fight against IS in the northern Syrian town that shares his name, and his spiky hair has turned grey from years of fighting the jihadists.
On Tuesday, he appeared relieved and flashed a wide grin alongside dozens of fellow fighters taking pictures and joining in to the traditional dabke dance.
“This is where Daesh used to behead innocent people accused of refusing to serve the Islamic State,” said Rojda Felat, the SDF’s commander for its Raqa operation, as she waved a huge yellow flag emblazoned with her militia’s name.
– ‘Heartbroken city’ –
Much of Raqa — including the buildings around Al-Naim — have been devastated by months of clashes and US-led air strikes.
Even far from the front line, Raqa natives were overwhelmed with emotion when learning of Al-Naim’s recapture.
“They beheaded my nephew. I was whipped four times there for not wearing my niqab properly,” said Um Abdullah, a plump 44-year-old woman who fled IS three years ago.
As she recalled her few months under IS rule, she began to cry.
“I hope all the Daesh fighters’ heads are hung on the same metal fence,” said Um Abdullah, her voice cracking.
Ahmad al-Hassan, an SDF member originally from Raqa, said the roundabout’s capture conjured memories of IS atrocities.
“I remember the first beheading on the western side of the roundabout. The first time they burned books, English and French novels and cigarettes was right in the middle,” said the young fighter.
But he also still held fond memories of Al-Naim before IS overran the city in 2014.
“It was full of restaurants, coffee shops, and the best canteen with a music hall that played Fairuz so loud you could hear it all over Raqa,” Hassan said, of the Lebanese singer known across the Middle East.
He said he still recalled buying bananas from a stand in the traffic circle and pastries from a humble shop run by a man called Abu Mohammad.
“I wish we could bring them all back, if they’re even still alive,” he said, speaking from Ain Issa north of Raqa.
For fighters like Hassan, Tuesday’s victory was bittersweet.
“Thank goodness but to be 100-percent happy I want to go back to my heartbroken city. Raqa is liberated — but I don’t know whether to be happy or sad.”