RAQQA, SYRIA - Amid the gray ruins of Syria’s devastated city of Raqqa, three boys stopped and stared as two Father Christmases walked by with black sacks slung over their backs.
The two men in red outfits and fake white beards rang their bells as they marched through the war-ravaged city on Tuesday, much to the disbelief of a dozen residents following them.
Not since 2013, when war came to their northern city, had they seen such a parade.
In 2014, the Islamic State jihadi group seized Raqqa, making it their de facto Syrian capital and imposing its strict interpretation of Islam on everyone.
Leaning on a handcart loaded with electrical cables, the boys grinned as they watched the Santas make their way through streets strewn with rubble and twisted metal.
U.S.-backed forces expelled the jihadis in October after a months-long battle.
Stopping by what remains of an Armenian Catholic church in the city center, the Father Christmases handed out toy cars and dolls to those few families present.
After they left, a boy came running.
“Where’s Father Christmas?” he asked. “I wanted to see him.”
Most Christians fled after IS arrived to avoid the choices offered by the jihadis — converting, paying a tax or death.
The Church of the Martyrs has been reduced to a concrete shell and rubble, but it was more than enough on Tuesday for the city’s first Christmas in years.
Dozens of people — mostly Muslims — milled around inside, curious to see the celebrations put on by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance that had ousted the jihadis.
There was no priest and the only congregants were Christian members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Loudspeakers belted out hymns as some set up a large wooden cross on a pile of rubble, near a Christmas tree decorated with red and yellow balls.
“There are no words to describe how we feel right now,” said Christian SDF member Harou Aram.
“All our efforts have not been in vain,” said the 24-year-old commander with the Syriac Military Council, a Christian faction of the SDF.
Before the jihadis swept in, around 1 percent of Raqqa’s 300,000 residents were Syriac or Armenian Catholic Christians.
Among the crowd, Hajer al-Ahmad, a woman in an Islamic veil, had come to celebrate with three friends.
“We’re so happy today” for the Christians, she said. “IS used to forbid these festivities and accused them of being apostates.”
Another SDF commander, Chafkar Himo, said freedom had returned to Raqqa.
The city “has regained its colors. Everyone can return with their culture and religion,” he said.
Elsewhere in Raqqa, on a roundabout that was infamous under IS for beheadings or other forms of gruesome punishment, canvases had been set up on easels for artists.
Beyond the fence where jihadis once displayed severed heads, painters and female SDF fighters flicked paintbrushes.
One depicted a jail cell, another a Father Christmas on a black background.
“My painting is linked to Raqqa,” said Farhad Khalil, 47, as he stood beside a canvas covered in black, red and yellow.
“There’s blood but there’s also light.”