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Raqqa children tormented by IS beheadings and bombs

'Raqqa's children might look normal on the outside but inside many are tormented by what they've seen'
Displaced child from Islamic State (IS) group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa drinks water as he heads to first day of school at camp for internally displaced people in Ain Issa (AFP)

Children escaping Raqqa in Syria have been "tormented" by years of living under militant rule culminating in a ferocious bombing campaign on the city, a charity said on Monday.

It could take decades for young people from the Islamic State (IS) group's stronghold to overcome their psychological injuries, Save the Children warned.

The NGO interviewed children and their families who escaped the war-torn city, where a US-backed assault is battling to defeat IS.

"Raqqa's children might look normal on the outside but inside many are tormented by what they've seen," said the NGO's Syria director Sonia Khush.

"The children of Raqqa didn't ask for the nightmares and memories of seeing loved ones die right in front of them."

Raashida, 13, fled with her family three months ago to a displacement camp north of Raqqa. 

"IS beheaded people and left their bodies on the ground. We saw this and I couldn't handle it," she said.

"I wanted to sleep but I couldn't when I remembered what I saw. And I wouldn't sleep - I would stay awake because of how scared I was."

Since IS overran Raqqa in early 2014, the city became synonymous with the group's horrifying practices: public beheadings, stonings and militant propaganda in schools.

Raashida's father Aoun said he tried to keep his children away from such sights, but they slowly became accustomed to the macabre scenes. 

"There is nothing called 'children' anymore, we are all in a living hell now," he said.

As many as 25,000 people - almost half of them children - remain trapped in Raqqa as US-backed forces tighten the noose on IS.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” UNICEF official Fran Equiza told the Associated Press after a visit to three displaced person camps in northern Syria.

“There are 10,000 children trapped in Raqqa in extremely dire conditions,” he said.

The children continue to live with “no electricity, no water, probably very little food… and the battle almost every day”, Equiza said.

Save the Children warned that heavy coalition bombardment left families "facing an impossible decision: stay and risk being bombed or leave and risk being shot at by IS or stepping on a landmine". 

Yaacoub, his nine siblings and their parents came under IS sniper fire as they made the perilous journey out three months ago.

The 12-year-old and his siblings described IS punishments such as stonings, cutting off smokers' fingers and sewing mouths shut.

"They filled the roundabout with heads that had been cut off. We saw them doing it, and cutting off hands," Yaacoub said.

His younger brother Fuad, two, was wounded in an air strike.

Monitors say hundreds of civilians have been killed in coalition raids since the Arab-Kurdish alliance it backs broke into Raqqa in early June.

The United Nations has called for a pause in fighting to allow remaining civilians to flee.

Save the Children backs safe routes for children and families, but said that was just the beginning of a longer process to ensure their mental wellbeing too. 

"It's crucial that the children who've made it out alive are provided with psychological support to help them deal with the trauma of witnessing senseless violence and brutality," Khush said. 

"We risk condemning a generation of children to a lifetime of suffering unless their mental health needs are addressed."