'No childhood anymore': Bombings and beheadings haunt Raqqa's children
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by US-led coalition warplanes - entered Raqqa in June as part of Operation Euphrates Wrath, a campaign to dislodge IS from the city.
In 2014, the militant group declared Raqqa to be the de facto Syrian capital of the self-proclaimed "caliphate".
Most of the city's 300,000 residents have already fled the fighting, with 18 of Raqqa's 24 neighbourhoods now completely depopulated.
Those who have fled risked IS sniper fire, landmines and coalition airstrikes to reach safety.
But an estimated 25,000 civilians still remain trapped, fearing for their lives amid intense bombardments and house-to-house fighting.
British charity Save the Children spoke to dozens of children who had escaped from Raqqa's violence.
They relayed personal stories of the horrors of daily life in the city, where public spaces and parks became execution grounds littered with severed heads and decomposing bodies.
'There's no childhood anymore'
"The other day [IS] beheaded people and left their bodies on the ground. We saw this and I couldn't handle it," 13-year-old Raashida told Save the Children.
"I wanted to sleep but I couldn't when I remembered what I saw."
Raqqa became synonymous with the group's most gruesome atrocities, with children witnessing barbarity as part of their daily lives.
"If a woman does something wrong, [IS] will stone her with stones. And if someone smokes, the fingers of the hand he used to smoke are cut off," Faridah, 13, said.
"There is someone - I don't know what he said - but they sewed his mouth. He said something about IS and they sewed his mouth! And while they were whipping him, blood came out of his mouth. Poor man."
|The complete breakdown of normal life has had a severe impact on Raqqa's children as a whole generation has missed out on their education|
Beyond the daily acts of violence, Raqqa's children described a life of despair and hopelessness, cooped up at home for months on end with nowhere safe left to play outside.
Fresh food and water were scarce, while electricity from generators was reportedly only available for two to six hours a day.
Raashida's father, Aoun, says the complete breakdown of normal life has had a severe impact on Raqqa's children as a whole generation has missed out on their education.
"There's no childhood anymore, children have forgotten. There are no schools anymore, no toys, and even if the children want to go to school they are going to be taught how to fight," Aoun told Save the Children.
"But there is no actual education… I have a son who should be in his last year of primary school, yet he still doesn't know how to read and write."
Tormented by nightmares
The combined effects of living for years under the brutal rule of IS and the intense military campaign to retake the city has led to a mental health crisis for Raqqa's children, Save the Children warns.
A study by the group of children who had escaped IS in northern Iraq found that many displayed signs of toxic stress, when the body is in constant fight or flight mode.
The loss of loved ones was the biggest cause of distress, the report found, with a staggering 90 percent reporting the loss of a family member through death, abduction, or separation while escaping.
The conflict conditions on the ground make it near impossible to fully assess the mental well-being of children still trapped in Raqqa, but testimonies from escapees paint a bleak picture of life there.
Sonia Khush, Syria country director of Save the Children, told The New Arab that children had a permanent sense of fear and terror after routinely witnessing horrific acts of violence.
"They all describe really horrific stories. Children began to dream about beheadings," she said.
"One father described going to the market and seeing bodies hanging from lamp posts, imagine the fear and terror it would instil in a child."
|The combined effects of years of brutal IS rule and the intense military campaign to retake the city has led to a mental health crisis for Raqqa's children|
As the battle to retake Raqqa rages on, Save the Children says civilians must be able to leave the city safely, while protecting children must be a priority.
"Raqqa's children might look normal on the outside but inside many are tormented by what they've seen," Khush said.
"The children of Raqqa didn't ask for the nightmares and memories of seeing loved ones die right in front of them."
Save the Children is providing clean water and sanitation, psycho-social support, and temporary classrooms for children and families who have fled. The group hopes to set up mobile health and child protection units as the crisis escalates.
But while Save the Children and other humanitarian organisations are doing all they can, there is a chronic lack of mental health services available in Syria, with very few psychiatrists left in the country.
Civilians who have fled Raqqa are also scattered across Syria, making it harder to provide consistent resources as they are constantly on the move amid the ongoing conflict.
"We risk condemning a generation of children to a lifetime of suffering unless their mental health needs are addressed," Khush said.