Although US-backed fighters had chased the Islamic State group out of his village last year, but Syrian teenager Bashar Qassem’s missing hand is a constant reminder of their cruel rule.
A Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by US air strikes recaptured Bashar’s village of Al-Hol, near the border with Iraq, from the jihadists in November.
When the jihadists fled, they left the bright-eyed 16-year-old behind, cradling a stump wrapped in white cloth instead of a right hand.
It all started when “one of the Daesh guys accused me of stealing a mobile phone,” Bashar says, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The jihadists declared a “caliphate” across parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, implementing their extreme version of Islamic law in areas they controlled and committing widespread atrocities.
Sitting in his modest home among the hamlet’s low concrete houses, Bashar says that after the accusation he was detained by the jihadists.
“They hit me so hard that I confessed — even though I never stole it,” says the youth, his thick black hair slicked back and a faint moustache on his upper lip.
He was taken to a jail in Shadadi, a town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) southeast of Al-Hol. Bashar was held there with several others, some, he says, no older than 10.
Two of these boys had been detained for smuggling tobacco because smoking was forbidden by IS, Bashar says.
“They took them and whipped them in front of everybody, then fined them before releasing them.”
When an investigator came to question a woman in an adjoining cell, “they locked us all up — closing even the tiny window in the door so we couldn’t see”.
“We could hear her screaming outside.”
Bashar was kept locked up — with only half-hour excursions in a courtyard — for 40 days.
– ‘Not a whole man’ –
Finally his captors told him he would be going home. They handcuffed him, covered his eyes and put him in a car.
The blindfold was not removed until he was placed on a chair, sitting at a table surrounded by an unfamiliar crowd.
“When I saw all these people around me, I thought they would behead me. They laughed as if this was something normal,” Bashar says.
Under IS’s interpretation of Islamic law, the punishment for theft is amputation of the right hand.
“I refused to give them my hand but they hit me and drugged me,” he says. “When I woke up I was in the hospital and my hand was missing.”
Back home, Bashar’s mother could not believe what had happened.
“For two or three days I was in complete disbelief,” she says, her slim face weathered by years of sun and grey hair bound in a black scarf.
“When he came to me with his hand amputated I went crazy.”
Since IS left Al-Hol, the area has slowly returned to life.
Inside a tiny convenience store, Bashar waits as a young boy scoops a ball of bright pink ice cream out of a freezer.
Cone in his left hand, Bashar eats the frozen treat as he strolls down the street with his brother.
In areas freed from IS, many teenagers have returned to studying the national curriculum that was banned under the jihadists.
Some even get excited about high school finals.
But Bashar isn’t one of them.
“I don’t know how to write with my left hand. What’s the point?” he asks.
The teenager is also not enthusiastic about returning to work to support his single mother and three of his siblings.
“Before I used to work in vegetable, fish or poultry shops. But I can’t work without a hand.
“I’m not a whole man. I wish they’d cut my head off instead.”