Ruth Sherlock

In a classroom that's so cold you can see your own breath, five teenage girls, their hair covered by brightly patterned scarves, and two boys read English phrases from textbooks. Repeating after their teacher, they say, "It has plants from all over the world."

The lesson, about an indoor rainforest in the United Kingdom, is a world away from the devastation surrounding them. They are students in Raqqa, Syria, a city that ISIS once claimed as its capital.

The green landscape of rural northeastern Syria is home to wild ducks and donkeys, villagers tending cattle — and U.S. military bases housing 2,200 troops. American soldiers patrol the countryside in armored vehicles and hover overhead in Black Hawk helicopters. In the Kurdish-majority area known as Rojava, towns are bursting with Christmas decorations. Holiday lights adorn almost every main street in the city of Qamishli, whose diverse population includes many Christians, and shops are selling tinsel and plastic trees.

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Um Mohammed says she was in search of a happier life when she decided to bring her family from the Netherlands to live under ISIS.

"I thought the ISIS 'caliphate' would be perfect, like a utopia," says Um Mohammed, who describes having felt discriminated against as a Muslim in the Netherlands and says the militant group's online propaganda drew her in. "I don't think [life in the caliphate] was what most people expected. I regret going and having, you know, to go through this."

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Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of dead bodies.

On a busy street corner in Raqqa, Syria, a digger pushes through the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike. Onlookers shield their mouths and noses from the dust and stench of corpses of those who perished beneath.

Just streets away, three recovery workers pull out the delicate skeletons of two children from under the debris of a partially collapsed home. And across the city, in what was once Raqqa's public park, men unearth more bodies from a mass grave.

The Syrian city of Raqqa is blanketed in despair. Residents survive in a wasteland of war-warped buildings and shattered concrete. They sleep exposed to the elements in homes with blown-out walls.

In the desert scrubland of Morocco's Tangier region, a donkey laden with water bottles trots down a pebble lane chased by two small children. A farmer herds his cows in the near distance. Crickets leap in the dry grass.

It's within these gently undulating hills, just inland from the coast, that China plans to build an entire city that will stand in monument to its expansion into a North African nation on Europe's doorstep.

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