When the bombs rained down on Raqqa in eastern Syria early on Tuesday, many families were already huddled in their homes awaiting the inevitable.
The first strikes landed just after 2am, directed at sites that Islamic State (Isis) has openly used and that had long been flagged as targets. The jihadis were no longer there though, having blended in with Raqqa’s civilian population, where they knew they would be safer.
By daybreak, the governorate building, an Isis command post for the past 15 months, a TV station and a Syrian military base had been destroyed. According to several residents who spoke to the Guardian, up to 30 people were killed. Most, if not all, were militants.
The rest of the city remained hunkered down until the roaring jets and whining drones above had long gone.
“At first, I thought it was an air strike by Assad,” said local resident Mohammed Sheiko. “But it was different this time. It lasted for 30 minutes and the sound of bombing was louder than usual. I saw smoke coming out of the governorate building and from the al-Rasheed gardens.
“I called a couple of my friends and they didn’t know about any civilians killed, but they heard some Isis fighters were killed, around 30 to 35 fighters. I don’t fear the air strikes. I hope they will bring us some good and not attack civilians.”
Hiba, 20, a student, said: “I heard the sound of the bombing, like everyone in Raqqa. I can already see the success of these strikes. Isis fighters have already started leaving the city, following their families, who they evacuated a while ago.
“There are no words to describe the bombing. It was a scene I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to face. I was on the balcony with my little sister and we could hear the sound of planes and I was joking with her and said: ‘Comb your hair and smile, you are being filmed.’
“Later the bombing started and we all ran to the living room, everyone screaming and running in different directions. We didn’t know what to do. Our neighbour went to the hospital and asked if they needed blood and they said no because they haven’t got any injuries. Most people who left their homes live near Isis headquarters. We won’t leave our home. There is no point. We believe in destiny.”
Reem, 20, a university student, sheltered at home with her four younger sisters and parents. “My mum doesn’t want us to leave. She says we will stay home like the rest of the people in the city,” she said. “We have nowhere else to go. My little sisters kept crying when they heard the bombing. They are still panicking. There are very few shelters in the city and all we can do is hide on the ground floor of our home and gather together in one room.
“I don’t know of any civilians being killed. Isis is quiet now and they haven’t made any speeches yet. Today, it is rather quiet but the market is now open again and I see people in the streets.
“I believe the air strikes will bring some good results. Even if they manage to damage Isis a little bit, I am for them. We are fed up with Isis and the air strikes are much better than the Assad attacks on Raqqa. Assad doesn’t attack Isis, he attacks us. We want to get rid of Isis even if that means we will lose some of our people. This is the price we have to pay to have our freedom back.”
Another local resident, Yasir, 25, said: “I’ve heard that 30 Isis fighters were killed. We in Raqqa are split in our opinions about the air strikes. Many of us were upset as we heard today that Idlib was attacked and some headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were hit. We feel that the air strikes aren’t against Isis, but against other groups. In the beginning, I was excited. But now I fear these attacks and the motivations behind them.”
Ahmed Sayel, 40, said: “I contacted a friend of mine who is an Isis fighter and he assured me it was a US air strike. He said some fighters are now martyrs, but I don’t know the number … I am not with these attacks as I know that it will only lead to the deaths of the Sunnis. I am pretty sure it won’t affect the Assad regime.”