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ISIS Fighters Seize Civilian Homes, Shave Beards to Avoid Airstrikes

URFA, Turkey — ISIS fighters seeking cover from Western airstrikes have taken to hiding in plain sight by seizing civilian homes and even shaving their beards, according to Syrians who've fled the militants' rule.

In the terror group's stronghold of Raqqa, many jihadist fighters have moved out of state buildings in order to blend into the community and dodge drone detection.

"If your family is in a house, they take your house and they put their family in there," said Abu Baraa, 19, who fled last month from Raqqa to Turkey. "They've started taking people's homes and living there. It's hard for civilians to separate themselves. It means that the airstrikes are harming ISIS, but they're harming us too."

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Civilians who answer a knock at the door from an ISIS militant are told he will be moving into their spare room or taking over their entire home, Baraa said. If they refuse, they might be executed.

"Recently they have been changing their appearance — wearing civilian clothes, shaving their beards," he added. "They are using taxis more often," instead of military vehicles, "or they cover their cars with mud so the aircraft can't see them."

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The teen said he was forced to watch public executions, including one carried out by Mohammed Emwazi —the British militant known as "Jihadi John."

"The situation became very dark — you could see it in people's faces," he said. "There were bodies everywhere. Half of my friends have joined ISIS, half of my friends have been killed by ISIS."

Image: Militants brandish the flag if ISIS in Raqqa in this 2014 file photo.
Militants brandish the flag of ISIS in Raqqa in this 2014 file photo. STRINGER / Reuters

Baraa's parents urged him to leave, and smugglers helped him to find a route across the Turkish border.

In the city that he left behind, taxes are still as certain as death — even under jihadi rule.

There is evidence that ISIS is relying on civilians to plug the hole in its finances created by coalition attacks on occupied oil refineries.

"They have introduced new taxation for cars," Baraa said. "There are now fines for crossing red lights. All the motorbikes now have new plates with the ISIS title on. Most of these new charges have come in the last three months."

Um Ahmed also escaped from life under ISIS in Raqqa — militant commanders gave her permission to leave when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite the physical pain she feels, Amed considers her illness a "relief" because it allowed her to travel to Turkey to seek treatment.

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"[ISIS] had a massive, terrorizing effect. They were terrorizing the people there and they continue to terrorize everyone."

She lost her husband and two sons to the violence of Syria, and is terrified for another son she was forced to leave behind in Raqqa.

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"I am really afraid," she said. "I wish I hadn't been born. I wish there had been no revolution."

Urfa, her new hometown, is an ancient city which has attracted pilgrims for centuries, and is now hosting tens of thousands of refugees. Many will attempt to travel onwards to western Europe, but many others will remain in the Turkish border town.

Image:
Syrians gather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey, in Syria, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Bunyamin Aygun / AP

Local officials say the influx has placed a growing strain on public resources, but say they are happy to host their "neighbors."

"It helps that we have so many cultural similarities to Syria when we are accommodating people here," said Urfa's deputy mayor Mithat Sengoz.

Rohit Kachroo is a reporter for NBC News' U.K. partner, ITV News.