RAQQA (Syria) • Days ago in Syria's Raqqa, die-hard militants made their final stand in the city's national hospital.
On Wednesday, it stood eerily silent, its entrance inhabited only by swarming flies and two rotting corpses.
Each body lay next to an overturned motorcycle on the side of a thoroughfare leading to the abandoned, bullet-riddled complex, which US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Tuesday was clear of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The national hospital and the city's football stadium were the last two ISIS holdouts in Raqqa, once the notorious capital of the terror group's self-styled caliphate, and their recapture marked the end of the extremists' three-year rule over the city.
Outside the hospital, one of the two charred and decomposing corpses wore an explosives belt. Scattered on the rubble-littered ground nearby were copies of the Quran, boxes of medication and gauze, and a tiny black notebook full of dates and phone numbers for ISIS administrative bureaus in the city.
One Syrian number was marked "WhatsApp number for my wife, Umm Islam the Moroccan".
ONLY MEMORIES LEFT
It was full of restaurants, coffee shops and the best canteen with a music hall that played Fairuz so loud you could hear it all over Raqqa.
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES MEMBER AHMAD AL-HASSAN, originally from Raqqa, remembering the Al-Naim traffic circle.
The months-long drive by the SDF to capture Raqqa was backed by heavy US-led air strikes and artillery fire. The outer neighbourhoods of the city, the first to be taken, were heavily damaged.
But closer to the city centre, where fierce, urban clashes raged for weeks over strategic multi-storey buildings, the devastation is also striking.
Entire neighbourhoods look like they have been put through the shredder, with homes and shops reduced to nearly indistinguishable piles of concrete cinder blocks, pipes and wires.
Eighty per cent of the city was destroyed, according to some estimates, reported The National.
With no civilians in sight, the only clues that Raqqa was once home to tens of thousands of people are now sprinkled in the filthy streets: A student's notebook, teardrop-shaped crystals that once hung from a chandelier, and a heart-shaped cushion emblazoned with cartoon characters, reported AFP.
A battered blood-red couch hung out of the gap in a building where a balcony used to be. A wardrobe inside was exposed, its door flung open revealing an untouched row of men's shirts.
The civilian death toll in the air strikes was more than 1,000, according to Syrian activists and international monitors. More than 200,000 residents fled and now have little to return to, reported The New Yorker.
Ironically, Raqqa was the place where the US provided early aid to build political opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It had provided fire trucks, ambulances, garbage trucks, generators and other infrastructure for the local council that emerged to provide alternative rule.
But after its fall to ISIS, the militants commandeered the equipment. Much of it is believed to have been destroyed in the air strikes.
SDF member Ahmad al-Hassan, who is originally from Raqqa, still holds fond memories of the Al-Naim traffic circle - the notorious roundabout in Raqqa where ISIS carried out gruesome beheadings.
"It was full of restaurants, coffee shops and the best canteen with a music hall that played Fairuz so loud you could hear it all over Raqqa," he told AFP, referring to the Lebanese singer known across the Middle East.
He said he still recalled buying bananas from a stand in the traffic circle and pastries from a humble shop run by a man called Abu Mohammad. "I wish we could bring them all back, if they are even still alive," he said, speaking from Ain Issa, north of Raqqa.