Two days after opposition forces stormed across the border with the backing of Turkish tanks and air cover last Wednesday, Murad Mahli, a journalist from Jarablus, returned to his village less than a kilometer south of the Turkish border.

“I was waiting for this moment,” Mahli tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

Jarablus, which lies on the western banks of the Euphrates River in Aleppo province, was a city of about 30,000 before the war began. It has since become a smuggling hub for the Islamic State, hence its strategic importance. When the Sunni Arab rebels captured Jarablus, 15,000 residents were left inside.

The Islamic State took full control of Jarablus in September 2013. Mahli says he fled one day before the invasion.

While thousands of internally displaced who were staying in surrounding villages are beginning to return, others “are waiting for all the mines to be cleared,” Murad tells Syria Direct.

Life is slowly returning to the city, now largely under FSA control. “Some stores are open and operating as they always have,” the journalist says.

“Turkish organizations have come into the city to start rebuilding the bakeries the Islamic State dismantled as it left.”

Q: What was the population of Jarablus before rebels took control of it? Since the battle, how many people have returned?

Before the FSA entered Jarablus last week, there were 15,000 residents living in the city. Roughly 8,000 people have returned since the FSA took over. With so many who fled now living in nearby villages, the population is quickly growing as residents return. This is due to the tribal network between Jarablus and its countryside.

Now that IS has been permanently driven out of Jarablus, many of the city’s residents have returned. At the same time, there are still many people waiting outside the city. They’re waiting for all the mines to be cleared.

 Murad Mahli in front of his home after returning to Jarablus. Photo Courtesy of Murad Mahli.

Q: When did you leave Jarablus? What made you decide to leave?

I fled Jarabalus a day before IS captured the city three years ago. I fled with my family to Turkey.

We were scared of the oppression, civilian arrests on baseless charges and the extremism of IS. All of this contradicts our religion. We couldn’t bring ourselves to stay and be complacent.

Q: How did you know about IS’s governing methods?

Before I left Jarablus, a small group of IS fighters were present in the city, but they weren’t in complete control of it. Still, they would arrest people for smoking, or the clothes they wore, an accusation of insulting IS, or being accused of belonging to the FSA.

So even before they had real power, I saw them as a threat to the residents of Jarablus. I thought to myself, “if life has deteriorated this much already, what will it be like when IS has real power here?”

It did get worse. Some in my family were killed by suicide car bomb in the middle of the city.

Q: When did you return to Jarablus? Describe your feelings when you returned.

I returned to Jarablus the day after the FSA took full control of the city. I spent my entire time in Turkey longing to come back to my home town. I moved to a city just on the other side of the Turkish border because I couldn’t keep myself away from Jarablus. I was waiting for this moment... the moment I could return.

Since I’m a journalist I didn’t think I’d sit and watch what unfolded in Jarablus from Turkey.

Just after the announcement that the FSA took control of Jabrablus, I took my camera and returned. I couldn’t wait to see my home after three years. It was overwhelming.

Q: What was the state of your home when you returned? What was the city like when you returned?

It looked as it did when I left. There was minor damage to it. My house was taken by IS on the premise that I had strayed from Islam and fled to a country of non-believers (Turkey).

As for the city, there was some light damage to the homes as a result of clashes between the FSA and IS. The Islamic State mined some of the homes they had resided in. Three FSA fighters were killed searching for mines on the edge of the city.

Q: Describe the situation now.

For the most part, life is starting to return to normal. Some stores are open and operating as they always have. Turkish organizations have come into the city to start rebuilding the bakeries that the Islamic State dismantled as it left. The Turkish Red Crescent and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation have been bringing in aid, which many people are relying on until they can return to their normal work lives.

Q: Is there a military presence in the city? Are there still sleeper cells within the city?

The city is considered a military zone at the moment. The FSA is the only group that has a presence in the city right now.

The FSA created a battalion specifically for searching out and finding IS sleeper cells. They are partly relying on civilians’ knowledge, given that they know who was involved with IS.