Azaz, Syria -- Small towns across the north of Syria are returning to a more normal existence after the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) voluntarily retreated from the area. The move came just hours before a deadline for them, set by rival rebel groups, to leave the town passed.
'Liberated' from government control in July 2012, a year ago Azaz was desolate. With the battle for Mennagh military airport raging just a couple of kilometres away, the Syrian government took to launching scud missiles into town as a form of collective punishment against the communities the rebels forces hailed from. Just 10% of the town's original estimated 50,000 residents remained.
Today, the town is bustling. But for nearly six months the residents have lived in fear of ISIS who controlled the town. "It was really bad, ISIS were terrifying people by chopping heads and such horrible other crimes, thank god that they left." said a local driver who didn't want to give his name for fear that the group may return.
He went on to say that women were targeted by the group too. "They forced women to...cover up, and search them all the time. It happened with me. I was taking my sick old mother to the doctor and once they saw her, they were screaming 'cover up woman!' Shame on them. They can't do that to us, we all are Muslims."
A battle between rebel groups in September, triggered by ISIS accusing a German doctor working locally of being a spy, saw ISIS take full control of the town. They quickly set about implementing their repressive version of Islamic rule, says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and expert on the group.
"ISIS did implement its version of Islamic law --for example, banning sale and presence of prohibited commodities like tobacco -- and held public executions of those suspected of working for rival factions."
Since the group left on Friday, three mass graves have been found in the vicinity, containing the bodies of those killed by the group. Their presence is still visible in the murals and black logos which adorn many of the walls and buildings in the main street of the town.
Many residents in Azaz are still fearful and unwillingly to talk openly about life under the group just yet. Those who openly supported the rival Free Syrian Army (FSA) were targeted under ISIS rule and those who supported ISIS are now targeted under the FSA. For civilians, wishing to keep their heads down and their families safe, the change is new and confusing. They don't yet feel safe.
According to Al-Tamimi, "Residents were no fans of Northern Storm-the main faction in the town before ISIS took over. Now they have reclaimed a presence in the Azaz area. Northern Storm had a reputation for banditry."
Liwa al-Tawhid, the rebel group now in charge of the town, are allowing supplies in, and trucks were entering the town which sits on a key supply road to Aleppo freely over the weekend for the first time in months. "The FSA is supplying us with bread and supplies, vegetables are also available." said the local man who spoke to the Media Line.
For those living a few miles up the road at the Bab al-Salam camp for internally displaced people, the retreat of ISIS is good news too. The group are suspected of being behind a car bomb which was detonated in the camp less than two weeks ago, killing more then 10 people and wounding tens of others. The camp is heaving with people, muddy and unclean and the opportunity to seek refuge in Azaz may come a welcome one to its residents.
ISIS are still present in the country, having consolidated their presence along the key supply routes to Raqqa, a large city in the east where they have installed a mini-caliphate. Moving from Azaz where the presence was unwelcome and would lead to hostilities with other groups is seen as a tactical move.
While the power struggles between local rebel groups will probably lead to further uncertainty for the residents of Azaz, for now they are celebrating their newfound freedom: "It's cheerful!" said one man. It certainly hasn't been that for a while.