Tears of joy as IS hostages reunited with families
AL-QARYATAIN - Two weeks ago, Manaf thought his days were numbered. But this weekend he and other former Islamic State group hostages were given a hero's welcome in the recaptured Syrian town of Al-Qaryatain.
"I was dead and I have come back to life," he said in the central Syrian town, which the jihadists overran in early October before being driven out by Syrian troops on October 21.
In the 20 days before they were ousted from the town, IS executed at least 116 civilians they accused of collaborating with the regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
And they kidnapped at least 38 people, according to the government, among them Manaf and his brother.
But 25 of the hostages were able to escape last week and make their way to a Syrian army checkpoint, according to the hostages' accounts and Syrian military sources.
From there, they were returned to Al-Qaryatain by army forces on Sunday, as a group of media was brought into the town for an army-led tour.
Hundreds of residents of the town turned out to greet the returning hostages, with the mothers of the kidnapped scrambling to push their way through the crowds in a bid to spot their sons.
The arrivals were hoisted on the shoulders of residents, as women ululated and threw rice into the air in celebration.
Suddenly, Manaf spotted his parents and young sister among the crowd, and ran towards them, collapsing into his mother's arms and bursting into tears.
"My joy is indescribable... I don't want anything else in life, I have returned to my parents," the 20-year-old said.
His mother struggled to contain her emotions as she embraced Manaf and his brother Mohammed.
"The two have returned, thanks to God almighty," the 50-year-old said, her face framed by a brown patterned veil.
- 'You are heroes' -
Hugging Manaf tight, she repeated over and over: "my love, my life," taking his face in her hands and examining it with joy.
His little sister, her pigtails decorated with pink ribbons, rushed towards Manaf, who lifted her up and laughed.
His father Haitham, with tears in his eyes, repeated over and over with pride: "You are heroes."
"I had lost all hope of seeing them again. I thought they (the jihadists) would kill them, because they are devoid of humanity," he said.
Al-Qaryatain, in the central province of Homs, has twice changed hands, being first captured by IS in 2015.
Russian-backed Syrian forces recaptured the town the following year, but in early October the jihadists overran the town again in a surprise attack before losing it to a regime offensive a few days ago.
At the city's entrance, graffiti left behind by the jihadists was still visible: "The (Islamic) State will endure" and "Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," in reference to the group's chief.
But with the city's recapture, duelling graffiti has appeared: "Assad or no one," reads one scrawl just opposite, referring to President Bashar al-Assad.
The jihadists' arrival into town was a terrifying moment, Manaf recalled.
"We heard intense gunfire and we stayed inside," he said.
- 'We thought death was waiting' -
From the minarets of local mosques, IS fighters told residents to stay indoors, and then they burst into homes and took people away by force.
"We thought death was waiting for us," Manaf said.
Last Monday, after being taken by the group to an unknown location, he and 24 others managed to escape and reach an army checkpoint.
But while Manaf's family and others were celebrating, some were mourning loved ones executed by the jihadists.
Mohammed Kheir's brother was abducted by IS just two days before the army arrived.
"The jihadists entered the shelter where I was hiding with other residents of my neighbourhood," said Kheir, 45.
They took his brother and three other men, and Kheir later watched in horror from a window and saw the jihadists carrying out executions.
"They were shooting at passers-by in the square," he dressed in a brown robe, with a grey scarf draped over his head.
When IS withdrew from the city, he went straight to a building known to have been transformed by the jihadists into a prison.
"Near the entrance, I saw my brother lying on the ground in a pool of blood, a bullet in his head," said Kheir, adding that he saw other bodies at the site.
"I want to take up arms to avenge my brother."