Khirdeh: For the first time in more than two years, Awash al-Aboud looked out at her village in northern Syria wearing a fearless grin instead of the black veil imposed by the Islamic State group.
The elderly woman was among hundreds of residents who returned this week to villages recaptured by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance advancing on the jihadist stronghold of Manbij.
"For the past two and a half years, I felt like I was living among the dead because of the terror that IS imposed on us," she said.
Wearing an indigo-coloured robe, Aboud told AFP that she fled her village of Khirdeh, located between Manbij and the Euphrates river, along with other residents as SDF fighters approached last week.
Standing amid a gaggle of young children, she said that when IS controlled her village she had been forced to wear the black, full-face veil prescribed by its ultra-conservative form of Islamic law.
"Today, a new life has started for us. We're so glad to be done with Daesh," she said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
An AFP journalist travelled to several villages where the SDF, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, has expelled IS.
Arab fighters from the Kurdish-Arab alliance chatted with residents and strolled between buildings, some damaged by US-led coalition strikes or IS's infamous car bombs.
'Being safe is enough'
Abu Mohammad, 35, from the farming town of Abu Qulqul, said life under IS rule was so expensive that some residents were tempted to join the jihadists.
"They used to tell us that whoever wants to live well must join our ranks, but I refused. I preferred to starve than to join them and oppress my brothers," he said.
His wife, wearing a bright headscarf and carrying a toddler on her back, held up her arm and began to ululate — a sign of celebration and joy.
"Just being safe is enough," she said.
On the outskirts of the village, a suntanned man in a long robe and green vest took his flock of sheep out to the nearby plains.
Architect Khalaf al-Moussa, from nearby Qana al-Tahtani, said IS had imposed a system of fines and punishments during its rule over his hometown, also east of Manbij.
"We couldn't roll up our trouser legs while we were farming our land — every time we did, they would fine us 1,000 Syrian pounds ($2)," he said, standing in front of a modest fruit orchard.
"If someone tried to criticise their behaviour, they would sew his mouth shut for a while, or they would cut his head off and hang him up for everyone to see," Moussa added.
'Burned our books'
People arrested by the jihadists were not seen again.
The villagers were so terrified that their friends and family would report them to IS that "you couldn't trust your brother, your father, or your neighbour because of how afraid you were," Moussa said.
In many of the towns and cities it holds, IS has seized control of public institutions in a bid to project an image of a functioning, corruption-free utopia.
But that was not the case in Qana al-Tahtani.
"We used to ask them to provide electricity for us, and they would answer, 'Did the Prophet Mohammad have electricity?'" Moussa said.
"And I used to say to myself, 'Did the Prophet have all of these weapons to terrorise people?'"
Rada al-Sayyad, 18, said that IS jihadists had stopped him from going to school when they overran his village of Tal Aras east of Manbij two years ago.
"They burned all of our schoolbooks and they banned studying. They started forcing us to take religious courses that taught us that Kurds, teachers, and other religious scholars are all infidels," he said.
IS has been dealt several major blows at the hands of a powerful Kurdish militia — the People's Protection Units (YPG) — whose fighters make up the majority of the SDF.
In areas under its control, IS has enforced its own religious education coupled with military training.
But now, Sayyad said, he can return to school and a life without IS.
"Things are relatively okay. We'll go back to school soon – back to our way of life before Daesh entered our hometown."