The place dubbed ‘Hell Square’
YOU might remember the pictures - the obese Islamic State jihadi executioner swinging a four-foot sword in a public beheading.
The terrifying act, carried out by one of the terror outfit's executioners, was the first time many had seen the horrid, squalid-looking square in which it took place. But its residents remember a very different setting.
It was once full of promise, but over the past few years, all that has remained in Paradise Square are the heads of victims mounted onto spikes - a deliberate reminder that what was once paradise, had become hell.
A commander with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battling the Islamic State group said the city of Raqqa had been liberated from Islamic State militants and that combing operations were underway to clear the city of land mines and extremist sleeper cells.
Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo told The Associated Press on Tuesday that there were no longer clashes going on in the city.
Sillo said a formal declaration would follow befitting "the fall of the capital of terrorism."
Dozens of militants who refused to surrender had made their last stand in the city's stadium, which had become notorious as a prison and dungeons for the group.
It wasn't immediately clear if the IS militants were still holed up inside the stadium.
But Raqqa has been beset with unimaginable turmoil in recent years.
In November 2013, Islamic State militants cut the heads off one of Raqqa's famous monuments. Raqqa was the first Syrian capital to fall when rebels seized control of the area earlier that year. When Islamic State took over, they decapitated a pair of statues, peasants, one man and one woman, holding a torch light and looking towards the sky. They were a symbol of the human desire for freedom.
"This was ISIS's way of hinting that such a practice would later involve humans, in this very place. And that is what has happened," a resident of the city told Vanity Fair in 2014.
It was the beginning of a murderous campaign that left thousands dead thanks to the terror group's reported "Chopping Comittee".
Not long after Islamic State militants took over the city of Raqqa in 2014 and declared its self-styled caliphate, its public square, Al-Naeem, or Paradise in English, become the infamous site of brutal public executions and beheadings and the heart of the group's reign of terror.
Where an ice cream shop and bouncing castle once stood saw a devastating transformation into a macabre metropolis.
Sydney jihadist Khaled Sharrouf's seven-year-old son, who was pictured holding up the decapitated head of a slain Syrian soldier, is believed to have been taken at this very spot.
The city is also where Jihadi John, the British foreign fighter made famous in IS' execution videos, died by a US-drone strike.
"The story of this square sums up the dark story of the whole city," the resident told Vanity Fair.
Residents were summoned by loudspeakers and forced to watch the agonising deaths take place and soon enough, it was quickly renamed among locals from Paradise Square, to Hell Square.
In the streets, prisoners were tossed from tall buildings, beheaded, lashed or shot while the crowds gathered. Some were killed for offences as minor as smoking a cigarette. Hands and feet were chopped off. Others were stoned to death.
"Those who manage to get out often have a haunted, crazed look in their eyes. Memories taunt them, both good and bad," Somini Sengupta wrote in the New York Times.
Bodies and severed heads were carefully placed around the square by Islamic State militants and would remain there for days. Those who lived and escaped and to tell the tale would describe how the bodies were labelled, identifying the victim's crime in a deliberate warning to others.
"IS kills a lot of people, we see a lot of executions, a lot of beheadings. I have seen about five people crucified in the city. People are now calling Paradise Square Hell Square," Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, founder of activist network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told the Observer in 2014.
"From the first moment of its control over Raqqa, ISIS adopted a policy of horror and terror, resorting to executions, beheadings, cutting off hands and legs, and crucifixion."
Less than 10 per cent of the city remains under the terror group's rule - which was captured in 2014 - and a coalition of forces, including the United States, say Islamic State faces imminent defeat in the de facto IS capital, known as the "capital of darkness".
According to Reuters, IS used Raqqa as a base to plan attacks against the West.
The square was recaptured by US-backed Kurdish forces overnight but a senior commander said they weren't yet sure what the group had left behind but described the recapture as symbolic.
"The group showed off its might in this square. Now it is broken and is chased out of the heart of its alleged capital," he told the Associated Press.
More than 270 Islamic State terrorists, which US-backed forces call "local mercenaries" have surrendered with their families in the city, but the final few are fanatical foreign terrorists who refuse to surrender until the final bullet is shot. They currently still hold control of the hospital and the city's main stadium, which are metres away from Paradise Square.
With dwindling ammunition and stocks, they face a morbid fate in what is expected to be a battle of only a few days.
Meanwhile, a woman rescued from Islamic State terrorists in the besieged city of Raqqa has been captured tearing off her black burqa in a fierce symbol of freedom and feminism.
Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State, known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, uploaded the footage of the unidentified woman to YouTube on Sunday, where she rips off her burqa to reveal a leopard print shawl - a piece of clothing which would have been banned under Islamic State rule.
- with AP
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