What life after ISIS looks like in a Syrian border town

They’ve lined up here before, desperate. Today, they are hopeful — they are going home.

Over the past several weeks, thousands of Syrian refugees have gathered on the Turkish side of the Karkamis border crossing, ready to retrace the difficult steps they took to escape ISIS.

Ahmet Naz is 30 years old. He asks not to be photographed, but tells CBC News he, his wife and their 18-month-old son Arwat won’t be refugees anymore. They’ve lived in Turkey for the past year and a half, having fled Syria when their son was just 15 days old.

In broken Turkish, he says they are happy to be going home but not sure what they’ll find on the other side.

Karkamis Border Crossing

Syrian refugees line up on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, waiting to return to their homes in neighbouring Jarablus. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

Making the crossing

Jarabulus lies just through the iron gates of the border crossing.

The Turkish Directorate General of Press and Information is taking a small group of foreign media, including CBC News, into the recently liberated Syrian town to show what life is like there post-ISIS.

It is a controlled trip, just about two hours long. We can’t wander too far from our guides, and movements are monitored for security reasons, but we are free to speak to locals and officials.

Jarabulus Destruction

One of the many buildings destroyed by the fighting in Jarabulus, Syria. In the background, a young man sits on a windowsill of a building that survived the attacks. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

Inside Jarabulus

Locals say the streets were all but empty after ISIS took control in 2014, when most of the 23,000 people who lived here left.

On this day, two years later, crowds of families are in the streets. They have electricity and running water again.

They hope the trade and farming the region is known for will soon resume.

Amine, a mother of nine, is thankful.

“Now, thank God, our lives are a lot better,” she says. “We can get food, we can get bread, we can get everything.”

ISIS Torture Chamber

Blood and burn marks on the floor of a high school classroom used by ISIS to torture prisoners. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

There is a heavy military presence — Free Syrian Army fighters guard every corner. They, along with Turkish forces and U.S. airstrikes, helped drive out ISIS in late August. They are heavily armed and ready to fire.

What was once a local high school classroom offers a horrific example of life under ISIS’s brutal control. Turkish officials show photographs they say is evidence the space was a torture chamber: a cable dangling from the ceiling and even now, blood and burn marks stain the floor.

It is one of two schools the Turkish government is renovating in Jarabulus.

The country has taken in millions of Syrian refugees and now wants recognition for the role it’s playing in helping rebuild their homeland, too.

Turkey in Syria

A Turkish flag and a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang on a building in Jarabulus, Syria. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

A complicated future

Just over 6,000 people have returned to their homes in Jarabulus now. Many more have nothing to return to. The rubble the war has left behind can be seen at every turn.

There is a small tent-hospital, treating local patients — another part of Turkey’s assistance plan.

And the local government is starting to settle in. An 18-member council was recently chosen to represent the various tribal factions in the town.

Syrian school boys

Children in Jarabulus, Syria, line up for class a few weeks after ISIS was forced out of the border town. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

Life is still far from normal, and Syria’s future still uncertain.

The security manager of Jarabulus, Cmdr. Abu Ismail, says “ISIS is a gang, not a country. That’s why it is falling so fast.” He admits, though, there is still a small number of ISIS sympathizers in Jarabulus — sleeper cells, but a dwindling group he insists they will destroy.

Another soldier here, 29-year-old Firat, says he’s been fighting the militant group since 2012. He offers an ambitious promise: ISIS will be wiped out within a year.

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