People of Al-Bab in Syria tell of last days under IS

Nazeer al-Khatib

Al-Bab (Syria) (AFP) - In the days before the Islamic State group's Syrian bastion Al-Bab fell, Umm Abdo's family sheltered underground both from the bombing and from jihadists themselves looking for somewhere to hide.

In a narrow rubbish-strewn street lined with broken and blackened stalls, the 30-year-old mother of four told of their suffering in the days before the northern town fell on Thursday to Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies.

"Each time they (IS) found a family in a basement, they'd chase them out so they could take their place," the veiled and abaya-wearing Umm Abdo told AFP.

"They wouldn't allow anyone to go out into the street, and at the same time you couldn't take cover in a basement. So you just had to endure the bombardment," she said, one of her sons in a stroller.

At Umm Abdo's side, her three other children appeared to have regained some of their composure.

Clutching teddy bears, they fed a street cat that had somehow survived the two-month onslaught that eventually chased the IS fighters from their last main stronghold in Aleppo province.

"We hid in the basement and made sure no one knew we were there. It was awful," Umm Abdo said.

They had a major fear of being discovered. "When one of my children cried, he was scolded," she recalled.

Al-Bab now bears the vivid scars of the battle unleashed on December 10 by Turkey and its rebel allies, after they took the border town of Jarabulus last August.

Carcasses of abandoned cars litter the streets along with mounds of rubble, roofs have collapsed and buildings crumpled, the facades of others shattered.

Along with hundreds of other families, Umm Abdo's wanted several times to get out of the town.

- Mopping up operations -

"We tried to, but we couldn't do it. Our children are so small we didn't dare leave," she said.

Her husband, Abu Abdo, said the jihadists had also set up checkpoints and turned back anyone who tried to get away.

"The roads were also heavily mined and several people were killed or wounded because of this," he said.

For the bearded 38-year-old, the choice came down to "stay and live or die" trying to flee.

In the distance, sporadic gunfire could be heard during mopping up operations that included having to clear explosives laid by IS to slow the advance of their enemies.

Residents were well aware of the danger of venturing outside.

"Before they left, the jihadists mined the town," said Abu Abdo.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over the past few days 14 people including civilians have been killed by such devices.

Before the jihadists came, Abu Abdo was a company employee and then he opened a grocery.

"But the situation got worse and I had to close it," he said of the reign of fear IS imposed after its conquest of Al-Bab in 2014.

"The last few years have been full of anguish and terror.

"Daesh fighters never left us alone -- they drove us from our homes and turned them into strongpoints," he said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

The family moved from house to house several times.

"They made us feel totally worthless, and if you didn't fight alongside them you had no right to anything," Abu Abdo said.

"But in the end I could see the fear in their eyes as they fled."