Syrian residents living under the rule of the al-Qaeda-inspired "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in al-Raqa suffer "daily oppression" and "crackdown on freedoms".
With these words Mohammed al-Hallaq described the way he feels living under the rule of al-Qaeda-inspired ISIL in al-Raqa.
Other al-Raqa residents told Al-Shorfa they are barely able to provide daily bread for their families and that ISIL elements are imposing a strict lifestyle on residents which impacts all aspects of life, including education.
Al-Hallaq, a geography and history teacher, told Al-Shorfa that the educated who remain in al-Raqa fear the consequences of the control ISIL is exercising over the education system in the province.
"Some public schools opened their doors under the direct supervision or management of ISIL, and they use ISIL curricula, such as the Islamic School for Outstanding Students, whose students are selected from among the children of mujahideen, muhajireen and supporters, and whose staff of teachers and administrators are known for their full and complete adherence to religion," he said.
"ISIL did not stop at taking control of school administrations," he said. "It also conducts near-daily surprise inspections at schools, in particular at girls' schools, in which women-staffed inspection teams enter school campuses to ensure the girls are dressed in Islamic clothing."
Girls found in violation of the dress code are often punished with a flogging, a punishment also applied to school administrators for failing to monitor the dress code, al-Hallaq added.
ISIL's "education committee" closely monitors all teachers working at schools in al-Raqa city and its countryside, arresting any teacher who does not conform to its educational and ideological agendas, he said.
On more than one occasion, al-Hallaq said, he himself has been interrogated about his views.
He also was asked to submit suggestions and comments on modifications to the curricula related to the Crusades and other historical and geographical information to match ISIL views, with special focus on Islamic conquests and the importance of the application of sharia, al-Hallaq added.
The shortfall in teachers, as many of them fled to other areas of the country or left Syria altogether, has thinned the teaching ranks, he said, necessitating the employment of a number of retired teachers.
Retired teacher Mahmoud al-Amin said he was happy when he was told to come out of retirement and teach again but that this did not last long, for he was suspended by ISIL's education committee, interrogated and accused of being a liberal, promoting democracy and inciting students to reject the application of sharia.
He said he had been a secular activist more than 30 years ago, and that his brother, a journalist opposes Islamist groups, their rule and their views, fled Syria at the start of the events.
Al-Amin said he is not currently collecting a pension from the Syrian government and was counting on his return to teaching to improve his financial situation.
Sometimes, he told Al-Shorfa, he cannot even buy bread for the family.
"I wait for the money my brother who lives abroad sends me at long intervals via his friends who come to al-Raqa through Turkey," he said.
"After I was suspended from teaching, I was summoned more than once to ISIL headquarters where I was questioned about my sources of income for daily living, and my answer, every time, was that I borrowed from friends or relatives, or sold some furniture," al-Amin added.
"I actually did sell much of my furniture, and all that remains are a few essential pieces," he said.
Housewife and widow Tahani Baroud said she is finding it difficult to manage her household and its expenses.
The house is empty of food and provisions such as grain and vegetables which used to feed the household for weeks and even months, she added.
These days, she said, she goes to the market every day to buy necessities, and many days, her family of five has to do with only one meal, what with the high prices and her two sons unable to send money from abroad.
Baroud said she feels she has become a stranger in her own hometown when she sees the families of foreign fighters in the markets of the city, spending money without a care and buying items Syrian citizens cannot afford.
"Restaurant meals have become an absolute luxury, restricted to them only," she said. "The wives of fighters buy goods from the market with ease while Syrian women buy only after protracted haggling with the seller."
In the past, Baroud said, she used to enjoy the songs played by shop owners and street vendors, especially Fairuz's morning songs. "But this also has disappeared because it has become a prohibited [practice] that brings on a flogging by ISIL," she added.
"Out of need, I worked at a sewing factory, and the situation there is no different than it is in the city," she said. "Only women work there and they are of course dressed in black from head to toe, and the bulk of the factory's output is women's black Islamic abayas."
The local councils are active throughout al-Raqa province, "but they have no authority to decide any issues without first deferring to ISIL emirs and officials, especially in relation to the completion of renovations and repairs needed by all towns and villages", said Mustafa al-Fawaz, who works as a maintenance technician with the electric company.
The province has many resources, including oil, vast agricultural lands and grain silos, he said, and more than one entity provides aid to the region.
But the receipt and distribution of such resources is in the hands of ISIL, and priority goes to its foreign members, then its Syrian members and lastly its supporters and those closely associated with it, he said.
In many cases, those who oppose them are denied aid in order to subjugate them or force them to leave the region, al-Fawaz said.
"Restlessness is rampant among residents, and fear is the only thing keeping them quiet," he added. "Everybody is under pressure except ISIL members, as if the people of the province have become second-class citizens who must obey the orders of ISIL's members and its black takfiri views."
Sufyan al-Hellani, who began working as a street vendor after he lost his job at an accounting firm in Damascus, told Al-Shorfa he never expected to see such a profusion of the colour black on the streets of the city of al-Raqa,
Wherever you go, he said, you see women clad in black, the colour ISIL has forced the women of the city and the region to wear.
"All you see are women wearing black abayas with head and face veils, and ISIL's black flags are hoisted in public squares and atop roofs and light poles," al-Hellani said. "Whoever walks through the streets of the city during prayer time must participate [in prayer] to avoid being punished at the hands of ISIL members who force everyone to pray and shop owners to close shop and perform prayer, thus turning all the city's squares to public arenas for forced prayer."
The Christians of al-Raqa are subject to a "jizya" tax, whereby they are required to "pay the equivalent of the value of 13 grams of gold and are barred from practicing their religious rites in public, and [Christian] women are forced to wear the hijab just like Muslim women", he said.
Very few Christian families remain in al-Raqa, he said.