Outside her home in a town of northeast Syria, four-year-old Baydaa scribbles on a leaflet of religious rules left behind by the Islamic State (IS) group as they fled earlier this month.
Her face is adorned with make-up of the sort banned by the group, which was expelled from al-Hol by a new US-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces that overran the area on Nov. 12.
The town was once a key waystation for the Islamic State between the territory it holds between Iraq and Syria, and its capture was a strategic victory for the new Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.
It is also a chance for residents to breathe easy again.
“My little daughter Baydaa has put ... make-up on her face, which was forbidden when the organization was here,” said Baydaa’s father, Hamdan Ahmed, referring to the Islamic State.
“I’m so happy not to see them in our village anymore,” the 39-year-old told reporters.
When the Islamic State seized al-Hol two years earlier, Ahmed refused to leave his home in the al-Shallal suburb of the town.
As a result, he was forced to abide by the group’s strict rules.
Women were forced to cover up completely and men to keep their faces unshaved.
Parents were ordered to send children under the age of 12 to religious schools run by the Islamic State “to avoid punishment or being whipped,” the father-of-nine said.
Elsewhere in the suburb, on the dusty sandy outskirts of the town, 42-year-old Mariam fed a small herd of sheep by a row of mud houses, including her own modest home.
“We left the village during the fighting after shells landed in our food store. We lost grain for the sheep, lentils and flour and were left with nothing to eat,” she said.
Even though the group is now far from her home, Mariam is still afraid they might return and covers her face with her headscarf when speaking to strangers.
She wears a long colorful dress that is traditional in the conservative region, but would not have met the strictures of the Islamic State.
“When IS was here, any woman who left home without a face veil and black robes would face whipping,” she said.
With the Islamic State gone, residents — who survive mostly on agriculture and livestock — are trickling back to check on their homes and their land.
“For two years, I couldn’t sow my land because DAESH prevented us from leaving the areas under its control to get what we needed, like seeds and oil” for agricultural machinery, said 44-year-old Hamid Nasser, using the Arabic-language acronym for the group.
The capture of al-Hol and the surrounding villages was the first major victory for the SDF, an alliance of the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Arab and Christian armed opposition groups.
The alliance is backed by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, and has received air drops of US weapons to support its fight against the group.
Al-Hol in particular was considered a strategic win for the group, severing a key route used by the Islamic State between its territories in Iraq and Syria.
In the town, the Islamic State ‘s slogans and strictures can still be seen, particularly those encouraging religious practice and the wearing of the veil.
“Sister in niqab, how wonderful and beautiful you are in your chastity,” one reads.
On barber’s shops, signs still hang reading: “Dear brothers, shaving or trimming the beard is forbidden.”
On walls are slogans including: “In the caliphate, there are no bribes, no corruption and no nepotism.”
For the SDF, the challenge now is to secure the approximately 200 towns and villages, some of them home to no more than a dozen people, that it has captured from the Islamic State in recent weeks and set up a new local administration.
While the SDF is dominated by Kurdish fighters, the region where the force is advancing is majority-Arab, raising potential sensitivities.
Elsewhere, the YPG has faced charges of discrimination against Arab residents, with Amnesty International last month accusing it of “war crimes” in north and northeast Syria.
The rights group claimed Kurdish forces had carried out a “deliberate, coordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS.”
The YPG dismissed those claims and has pointed to its strong ties with some Arab militias to ridicule allegations of discrimination.
SDF spokesman Talal Ali Sello said that civilians were being allowed to return to captured areas after the land was cleared of explosives, which the Islamic State frequently sows in areas before it retreats.
He said his forces are working “on the creation of a political body tied to a military entity that will oversee the liberated areas in the coming period.”
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