Ruth Sherlock

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.

The leaders of Russia and Turkey announced a plan Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib province, in an effort to avert a looming military offensive that aid groups say would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

In long talks in the Russian city of Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to create a buffer area between Syria's rebels and pro-government militias by Oct. 15.

In her simple home in a settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, next to tents sheltering other refugees from the war in Syria, Raja talks about the time when two young German men arrived at her door several months ago. They told her they were researchers for a charity.

"They seemed fine," Raja says. "They just wanted to come in and film the house. We said, 'We have nothing to hide.' They filmed everything, even the kitchen."

Raja, who is afraid to give her full name, says she wouldn't have let the men in if she'd known how the footage would be used.

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Hala hugged her 10-month-old baby close as she sat in the front seat of the pickup truck piled with the family's few possessions — thin mattresses, blankets, a small suitcase — as she waited to cross into Syria.

She had dressed neatly for the journey, in a carefully pinned maroon headscarf and black abaya gown. She tried to think of the positives: Her family would no longer be strangers in a foreign land; her children would set foot in their home country for the first time.

But as her convoy began to move toward the Syrian border, her nerve wavered.

Seema heard the children on the upper floors of the house scream "chlorine, chlorine!" Amina says she felt gas hit her lungs. Abu Faisal found himself caught in a yellow-tinged cloud.

These are just some of the testimonies collected by NPR from now former residents of Douma, a town outside the Syrian capital Damascus, who say that on the night of April 7, they endured the terrifying experience of a chemical weapons attack.

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So that's a brief timeline of how we got to this moment. Let's turn now to where we may go next. I'm joined here in the studio by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

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In Syria, government forces have nearly retaken rebel-held eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus. It's been under bombardment by Syria and Russia for weeks. One by one now, rebel groups are making deals to leave. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

Dressed in a sharp black suit, Syrian President Bashar Assad smiles for selfies with his soldiers against a backdrop of blown-out buildings and a battered tank. Weary-looking men crowd around him and chant the slogan frequently heard on this side of the country's war: "With our souls and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!"

This week, pro-regime media posted photos and videos of Assad visiting what they claimed was a town regime forces had recently captured in eastern Ghouta, an area east of the capital Damascus.

When Mohammed worked in his owner's field in Libya, bent over for hours pulling tomatoes from the soil, he would think often of the days when he was a free man.

He had lived a modern life in Zinder, Niger's second-largest city. He grew up in a good family and learned in school to speak two foreign languages — English and Arabic. "I kept thinking, I'm a human being, just like him," he says, comparing himself to a man in Libya he says enslaved him.

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Residents in parts of Syria have been experiencing some of the most terrifying days of their seven-year-long war.

This week, the Syrian government and its Russian ally pummeled towns and villages in the opposition-held northern Syrian province of Idlib with air attacks. A relentless series of payloads were dropped in the space of just a few hours in the darkness of Sunday night.

The dead are still being counted. Residents say dozens of people are missing under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

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After almost seven years, some half a million people killed and a recent string of victories by the Syrian military, there's a sense the Syrian war may be coming to a close.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, declared last month its mission accomplished and announced a partial pullout of its troops. Syrian state television now regularly broadcasts footage celebrating its military commanders as national heroes.

And investors from around the world speak in increasingly excited terms about that most lucrative phase of war: reconstruction.

On a bright, beautiful October day, Lebanese fisherman Emilio Eid is in his boat on the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon's scenic mountain ranges are clear in the distance.

But the water around him is brown and littered with pieces of floating plastic. He spots bottles, a toothbrush, a used condom. An acrid smell burns his eyes and throat.

"Garbage, garbage, garbage," Eid says, and turns to look toward the coast.

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