Syrian Government Stronghold Raqqa Falls To Rebels

The Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa is the first city to fall entirely to rebels who are fighting to bring down President Bashar Assad's regime. We have the story of Mohammad Abdel Aziz, who witnessed the fall of Raqqa from inside a prison cell.

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In Syria, the provincial capital of Raqqa has become the first city to fall entirely to rebels in the fight to bring down the regime President Bashar al-Assad. The city is in north-central Syria, toward the border with Turkey, and it was long thought to be a firm government stronghold.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story of one man who witnessed the fall of Raqqa from inside a prison cell.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: His name is Mohammad Abdel Aziz. People call him Azouz. For the past two years, Azouz has worked as an activist - going to protests, making a documentary about the Syrian uprising. Then, last month, he decided to go to Raqqa to see his parents. It had been nearly a year since he'd been home.

At the time, Raqqa was still controlled by the government. Azouz knew he was probably a wanted man. He snuck toward the city on back roads. He found a hole in a wall where he could avoid passing through a checkpoint.

MOHAMMAD ABDEL AZIZ: (Through translator) I went through and I was surprised to see three men in uniform. The worst thing is that you can't tell if they are with the government or with the rebels. If they were government, my life could end there. They asked, who are you? I said, I'm no one, I just want to go to Raqqa.

MCEVERS: The uniformed men searched Azouz's bag and found a laptop and an iPad. Both devices held pictures and videos of protests, rebels, opposition figures - in other words, the kiss of death.

Azouz says the men blindfolded him, beat him, and walked him into a building. An officer confiscated his stuff and started interrogating him.

AZIZ: (Through translator) After that he took me to the cell. There were a lot of prisoners. The first thing I asked is, where am I? They said, the military security branch. I said, do they torture there a lot? They said, no, and started laughing. They didn't want to tell me the bad news all at once.

MCEVERS: The next day Azouz was brought for interrogation again. Who are you, they asked? Why were you coming into the city on a back road? They sat him in a chair.

AZIZ: (Through translator) It's the same all over Syria. They tie your hands behind your back and tie your legs to the chair. Two of them started beating me. One was beating me with a thick cable. The chair and I fell to the floor. I started screaming, don't hit me on my arm, it's already broken. He said, OK, we won't beat you there. He brought an electric current and shocked me, right where the break is. The pain was indescribable and I lost consciousness.

MCEVERS: The pattern continued for days - interrogations, beatings. Then, one day, Azouz woke up to the sound of gunshots. All he could tell was there was a battle going on outside. He didn't know rebel fighters had already taken the checkpoints leading into Raqqa and were closing in on the city. Conditions in the prison got worse.

AZIZ: (Through translator) Usually, they gave us two sandwiches a day. One at 11 in the morning and one at 11 at night. But then there was only one sandwich. They just closed the cells and left us. The next day they stopped bringing food and water. We thought this was the end. We thought we will be part of a fight that we can not survive.

MCEVERS: Outside, rebels captured the governor. Residents of Raqqa celebrated. They pulled down a large statue of President Assad's father, longtime dictator Hafez al-Assad.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RIOT)

MCEVERS: In this video taken that day, people crowd around the fallen statue and beat it with sticks, cell phones, and shoes - the ultimate insult.

Back inside the cell, Azouz and the other prisoners still had no idea what was happening. Then came a sign.

AZIZ: (Through translator) The gunfire stopped, and I heard an Islamic chant that rebel fighters put on the loudspeaker when they are surrounding a government base. I heard the commander in our prison calling his boss. He was asking permission to do a prisoner exchange. Then they came to us and said, who has contact with the rebels?

MCEVERS: One prisoner volunteered. He made some calls. The rebels agreed not to kill government soldiers if the government agreed to let the prisoners go free.

AZIZ: (Through translator) The door of the cell had already been cracked open during the fighting. We managed to pry it all the way open. But then there was another door. That's where we heard the rebels shouting, we are here. We are here.

(Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This video of Azouz was taken as he leaves the prison. He looks like a skeleton with a beard. He says his name and that he is free.

AZIZ: (Through translator) I have been detained three times before. And each time I was released on the so-called generosity of the government. This is actually the first time I felt like I was liberated and free. It was not just happiness, but a feeling of pride.

MCEVERS: Many of the rebel fighters who liberated Raqqa and freed Azouz were Islamists. Some were with the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra. Now these Islamists control much of Raqqa. They hand out pamphlets about the benefits of Islamic law and threaten to cut the hands of thieves. But also, there's been little looting in the city and residents say law and order prevail.

Azouz says at first, he was happy to see Islamists, but now he's not so sure.

AZIZ: (Through translator) In the beginning, we saw these guys as the same as us, local guys who used to fall in love, take part in demonstrations, have Facebook pages. But now, when we visit them, they try to have this image, we are Jabhat al-Nusra, we are conservative and you can't treat us as you treated us before.

MCEVERS: Azouz says he's conflicted about what to do next. All his old videos and photos were lost when soldiers stole his laptop and iPad. His arm is still badly broken and needs treatment. He says he's going back to Raqqa, maybe to start a new documentary. Last time I went to Raqqa, it was controlled by the government, Azouz posted on his Facebook page before he left. Now I'm going to a city that has been liberated, and honestly, I'm more afraid of the Islamists, he says. What a shame.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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