Suleiman locked his front door for the last time and slipped the key into his pocket — though he knew he’d never need it again. He took one last look at his home then shepherded his family into the darkness.
Humming neighborhood generators pierced the still air. The stars illuminated the surrounding landscape and their path to freedom from Raqqa, Syria — ISIS’s de facto capital city.
A smuggler had agreed to take the family of five across the border to Turkey for less than $500 — still a lot of money for someone living on $150 a month.
As the family trudged through fields to avoid ISIS checkpoints, Suleiman’s three children began to whimper and Suleiman cradled his youngest in his arms. They had to be quiet. If caught, the punishment would be severe. It’s illegal to leave the so-called Islamic State.
The former teacher is now in relative safety in Turkey with his wife and children after making their escape. He spoke to CNN exclusively about the horror of life in Raqqa: being terrorized on the streets by ISIS and bombarded by warplanes from several nations. CNN cannot independently verify Suleiman’s testimony and has not used his last name for his protection.
Suleiman supported the uprising against Bashar Al Assad — but after years under ISIS Suleiman and his wife finally had enough.
“I left Raqqa for my children. Their lives were being destroyed,” he said. “I came to Turkey to build a new future for them and delete everything they saw.”
My kids recognized different war planes
ISIS has turned Raqqa — once liberal and prosperous — into a nightmare.
The group’s extreme interpretation of Sharia law enforces brutal violence. Decapitated heads line the main square. Lifeless bodies left in the streets.
“My kids used to hide when they saw an ISIS fighter. I rarely allowed them in the streets. My wife became a prisoner in her own home,” he said.
Life in a warzone — with fighter jets from Russia and the U.S.-led coalition dropping bombs on the ISIS heartland — began to affect the children.
He watched as their games evolved from playing with toys to make-believe guns.
“They started to tell the difference between Russian and American war planes,” he said.
None of them have been able to attend school — or at least a real school.
“They went for a week but then refused to go,” he said. “There is no education. Five to 11-year-old kids are in the same class. Teachers don’t show up and older kids harass them.”
People join ISIS out of hunger
Despite ISIS’s attempts to portray their so-called Islamic State as a paradise, daily life became unbearable for Suleiman’s family.
“If it was a paradise, we wouldn’t try to leave. Life is very difficult (there).
“You can count the number of doctors on one hand and they only service ISIS. Every day hundreds gather for free food hand outs. It’s not a lot. You stand there being humiliated trying to get something to eat.”
There is a way to survive under ISIS’s brutal regime.
“ISIS gives anything for free to people who join them. The rest of us get nothing. There is no food, electricity or money. The people join ISIS out of hunger.
“They also put pressure on people to join by going after their livelihoods, saying ‘You are with us or against us.'”
‘Little impact’ from airstrikes
The increasing airstrikes targeting ISIS’s oil production have also increased the price of fuel for cars and gas for cooking. Electricity lasts for roughly 12 hours a day.
The U.S.-led coalition began bombing targets inside Syria including Raqqa, in September 2014. Since then Russia, France, and most recently, the UK have all sent warplanes into Syria.
Many of the recent airstrikes target ISIS’s infrastructure in Raqqa — or at least that’s their intention.
“There’s little impact (from the airstrikes) because most areas are empty, or ISIS evacuated before the strikes,” Suleiman said. “Generally, the strikes kill a relatively low number of ISIS fighters. When we were in Raqqa city, for example, the court (was) hit three times. It was empty.
“(ISIS) installed sirens on every high building to alert them of war planes and drones. They are very afraid of the drones because they’re very accurate and the majority of fighters are killed by them.”
Following the French airstrikes, ISIS cracked down on internet usage, fearing their targets might be revealed.
“Nowadays there are only 10 internet cafes so they can watch (them) closely,” Suleiman said. “They are afraid that their members will try to communicate with foreign intelligence. We’ve seen a lot of people who’ve been beheaded and killed, accused of being spies.”
10-year-olds patrol with assault rifles
There is a sense of paranoia gripping Raqqa, Suleiman said. Neighbors mistrust one another fearing they could be ISIS’s intelligence.
Kids, some as young as 10, patrol the street. They are trained in ISIS camps.
“You can see a 10-year-old kid holding a Russian AK47. It’s surreal,” he said. “That kids can shout at you and sometimes they stop you and you can’t say anything because he is a member of ISIS.”
Many of these camps are outside of Raqqa. There they indoctrinate the children with ISIS’s brutal ideology and teach them the group’s murderous tactics.
Most of these children, Suleiman says, belong to foreign ISIS fighters, many of whom are from the Russian Caucus region of Chechnya.
Can coalition airstrikes beat ISIS?
When asked if the U.S.-led coalition can defeat ISIS, Suleiman pauses then shrugs.
“No,” he said. “Not with aerial bombardment alone.”
The coalition hopes the Kurds and their Arab allies — whose ground troops the airstrikes provide air power for — will be able to eventually take Raqqa. But Suleiman doesn’t use the word liberate.
“We have a proverb in Syria that the sweetest option between these two is bitter. Kurds also forced Arabs to flee. Both of them would be bad for locals in Raqqa.”
When pressed if he’d rather live under ISIS or Kurds, he said: “I don’t have an answer. It’s difficult because the Kurds forced the Arabs to flee. That’s a difficult question.”
ISIS’s reign of terror is over for Suleiman. But his family is not out of danger.
They’ll now join the other hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees making the dangerous journey to Europe’s shores.
“I want my kids to see a better future and get an education. To realize there is a world without war.”