On Syria's Raqa front, anti-IS fighters long for their loves
RAQA - The melancholy ballad sung by anti-jihadist fighter Nimer echoes through the makeshift outpost in Syria's Raqa. But his sorrow has nothing to do with the surrounding battles: he misses his girlfriend.
His lilting rendition competes with the sound of artillery fire and US-led coalition air strikes targeting the Islamic State group in its one-time bastion.
But Nimer, 18, seems a world away from the battlefield when he speaks about his love.
"I like to play these songs on my mobile phone, and then sing them quietly to my love," the young Syrian Democratic Forces fighter confides timidly.
He has not seen his girlfriend for a month and a half as he battles alongside his Kurdish and Arab comrades against IS.
Each time he has leave, he heads to his sister's house outside the city and tries to see his beloved.
"I want to marry her, have children and build a life from scratch," he says wistfully.
Around him, fellow fighters sit on purple cushions and smoke in silence, enjoying a respite from the offensive.
Their weapons are lined up along the wall next to them in the house, commandeered as an outpost.
Nimer hails from Raqa and lost his parents and brothers to the battles that have raged inside the city since June, when the SDF entered the IS stronghold after battling for months to encircle it.
"When we advance on the front, I revisit my memories in the midst of all the destruction. On each street we have memories together," he says.
- 'I did the impossible' -
Sporting a light beard and digital camouflage, Nimer still recalls the extreme interpretation of Islam imposed by IS's "religious police", including a rigid separation between men and women.
"I couldn't have photos or songs on my phone. I was afraid they would arrest me and accuse me of adultery. That was the way they thought," Nimer says.
"I would risk my life just to see her. I did the impossible."
Many of Raqa's streets are now virtually unrecognisable, with building after building disfigured by the grinding battle to oust IS.
In the distance, a US-led coalition air strike sends up a vast bloom of grey and white dust and rubble, and fighters nearby let off volleys of gunfire.
Yasser Ahmed discreetly moves away from his fellow fighters so he can speak freely about his two-year girlfriend, whom he hasn't seen for ten days.
"Under IS, it was like a prison," says Ahmed, 20, also from Raqa city.
"I couldn't see my beloved. We only talked by landline because we were afraid that IS's people would see us. We were scared all the time," adds Ahmed.
The top buttons of Ahmed's shirt are open to reveal a small gold chain hanging around his neck, a present from his love.
"She always tries to persuade me not to return to the front, but I tell her I must liberate my city from IS so we can live in security," adds Ahmed, his skin tanned a deep brown.
"Love is the most beautiful thing we have. During the war, we lost a lot. We don't want to lose love as well."
- Broken heart -
Abu Shalash, another fighter from Raqa, is battling the jihadists to heal a broken heart.
His lover's parents forced her to break up with him and marry her cousin.
"I went crazy, and I joined the fighting to forget my pain," says the 19-year-old.
He and his ex-girlfriend dated covertly under IS in their native Raqa, but she now lives in Ain Issa, a town further north.
"I left my city, I hated my life. When I passed in front of the house, I would remember the memories we created together," he says.
From time to time, Abu Shalash looks at the ground in exasperation, pausing to take a deep breath before resuming.
"During our last Valentine's Day, we celebrated in secret," he says.
"I brought her a red teddy bear and a cake with our initials on it. We always met at night, so IS wouldn't see us."
Despite everything, Abu Shalash hasn't lost hope that he might find love again.
"Life under IS was torture. I want the battles to end, and for us to live our love freely," he says.
"I want Raqa to become a city for all the lovers who were deprived of their love by IS."