BuzzFeed News sent photographer Andrea DiCenzo with Borzou Daragahi last month to Raqqa in northern Syria, where coalition forces have been trying to recapture the self-proclaimed ISIS capital while civilians flee under the cover of night to avoid being captured and killed by militants.
Raqqa has been an ISIS stronghold for the past four years, and the battle to retake control of the city has been slow. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a collection of militias and tribes led by mostly Kurdish commanders, has been struggling to force its way into the city for weeks.
"They've not been able to control or keep down a front line," said DiCenzo. "Units of 10 to 40 men occupy the top of the building but the ground floor is left unmanned. We heard a story where you have the SDF on the 4th floor and ISIS on the 3rd floor days after they cleared the building.”
In the middle of the battle are an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians trapped inside the city, according to the UN. Those who fled often did so at night or with the help of smugglers. Some ended up in de facto camps after being checked for explosives and weapons by SDF to protect ISIS fighters from civilians; others travel further to a UN refugee camp. DiCenzo said people she spoke to hoped to return home soon despite the fact that no one really knows when the war will come to an end.
“People can return to their homes in the outlying villages, but no one has been able to return to Raqqa yet," she said. "When we were out on patrol, two civilians approached on a motorbike, presumably to check on their house, and were turned back. It's an active, porous front line.”
These images show what life is like for Syrians caught in the fight against ISIS, as well as for those struggling to defeat the jihadi group.