Life Inside Islamic State
It’s Friday. This is the day we used to gather in the street after prayers and have long chats. But not anymore. Anyone gathering in public without permission now risks being accused of plotting against Daesh. I’m passing a crowd in a public square. I don’t want to join them because they may have been told to watch a beheading. But thank god it’s only a lashing this time. The offender is one of theirs. His offence, I’m told, was carrying out a homosexual act. Tomorrow I go back to work. A new week…. with new hopes of being liberated. But I want to tell you about when Islamic State first entered my beloved city. On mother’s day, a cold winter morning, I heard the sound of warplanes. I immediately set for my home. My brothers and sisters and I had planned a small party. As my taxi neared, clouds of smoke filled the air. The regime’s warplanes had hit our street. There were ambulances everywhere People were running around carrying the dead and the injured. One of my neighbours told me that my parents were hurt and had been taken to the General Hospital. When we arrived there the smell of blood and death filled the place. They asked us to look at the bodies laid out in front of us to see if my parents were amongst them. There was my dad. His body was covered in shrapnel wounds“Your mother is being treated in there”a voice said quietly, “but don’t go in yet”. Two hours passed… finally a doctor came out. I told him that I was her eldest son.“I’ve managed to save her life but she’svery ill’ he said. A neighbour of ours who runs a fruit and vegetables shop offered to help. “From now on”he said,“you can work for me.”I accepted unconditionally. A few weeks later I was working in the shop when I heard gunfire and the boom of heavy weapons outside. Everyone was running on the street. My friend gripped my arm and said,“Daesh had taken over the city”. Soon after a man I’d never seen before shouted at me“Hey! You! Smoking is not allowed!”Another cried “Hey! You! Why is your wifenot wearing a veil?! This is forbidden!”I heard loud speakers in the streets saying some people were about to be executed. A group of blindfolded young men stood in handcuffs. In front of them a masked man began reading“Hassan, fighting with the regime forces.”“His punishment: beheading”“Eissa, was a media activist. Accused of speaking to foreign parties.”“His punishment: beheading”A man, with a sword, carried out the punishment. As I walked down the road, cursing out loud, a group of IS’s religious police rushed over and grabbed me They took me to their headquarters I tried to reason with them, but it was no use.“You were cursing out loud. Your punishment is 40 lashes.”Without any mercy, or humanity, he lashed me. I could see in his eyes that he took pride in this. I left the headquarters of Hesba, Daesh’s religious police. When I arrived at my front door… I collapsed After hearing what had happened to me our pregnant sister had gone into shock and begun bleeding heavily. We knew we had to get her to a gynaecologist as quickly as possible. But when we arrived at the clinic we found that it was shut. A man outside told me“The doctor has been my neighbour for years but IS men arrested him and shut down his clinic.”“They forbid male doctors from treating female patients”.We had to travel to find a female gynaecologist. My sister was told to go home and rest. Later in the day I bumped into an old friend of mine. Looking nervous he pulled me aside.“We’ve formed a secret campaign group against Daesh”he whispered“We want the whole world to know what these murderers are doing to our city. You can play a part.”On the way home I met my friend Mohammed, who runs a shop. He pointed to a store across the road owned by a man we’d known for many years. A group of Daesh men were speaking to him. One of them was holding a bunch of paper in his hands.“Hey!”one of them shouted to us“Who owns this shop?”Mohammed replied:“It’s mine – how can I help”?“We’re from Zakah”he told us. This is supposed to be a charity for the poor but acts as a kind of tax for Daesh.“And we’re here to collect the money you owe us.”Mohammed insisted that he’d already paid all that was due.“Shut up!”The Daesh man bellowed back.“You must pay us a hundred thousand Syrian pounds.”Mohammed gasped“that’s too much money”. But he paid. The severed heads of others who’ve crossed Daesh are hung on park fences and lamp posts as a brutal warning. That night our home was rocked by explosions. I saw bombers high above. I switched on the tv to hear the news the international coalition was launching its first airstrikes against Daesh. The next day, a local cab driver told me that many of IS’s buildings had been hit. He warned me police are roaming the streets in big numbers looking for spies who guided the planes. A crowd had gathered around a deep hole. Crouched inside it was a woman. I asked people who she was and what she was doing there. Before I got an answer a large masked man began reading. “This woman was adulterous and her punishment is to be stoned to death!”His words were interrupted by the noise of planes overhead. A local vendor shouted“Hide!”“Hide!”There were big explosions and body parts everywhere. Most of them belonged to civilians. It was a Russian airstrike supposedly targeting terrorists. Isn’t the terrorism we suffer on the ground enough? Now you bring it from the skies as well! The days seem all the same now. The revolution sparked my hopes and dreams. I dreamt of leaving my country and building a better life elsewhere but that’s no longer possible Anyway, my country, needs me. I hear her calling like a mother to her son. It’s early morning and the noise of warplanes has woken me. I can hear the sounds of explosions and my neighbour’s children crying. It’s a bitter reminder of reality and the need to stop dreaming and focus on staying alive. The explosions are getting closer and closer. My brother and I go outside to see what’s happening. One of our neighbours is running around hysterically. He’s asking if anyone has seen his son. “He went to buy some bread!”.Those around us say the bombs have hit Abu Mohammed’s house near the Naeem roundabout. We run there as fast as we can to find scattered bodies. One of them belongs to a pregnant woman. Neighbours tell us she was due to give birth in just a few days time. Then the noise of warplanes grows louder. One is overhead. We all scatter. It’s white, like the ones that hit us a few days ago. a Russian plane After the planes had all gone, I got up and walked to the shop I work in. My boss, who was quietly sipping tea, gave me a weary smile. I noticed he wasn’t smoking. That was very unusual he usually had a cigarette with his tea. But Daesh has banned smoking now. After smelling his cigarette they’d humiliated him in front of everyone. Then they beat him up. As if he was a criminal. While we were talking two men carrying some papers went into the shop next door. Seconds later they walked into ours. They handed us both pieces of paper before leaving without a word. These were an order from Daesh, banning all televisions in shops. We had a week to remove ours. It seems it wasn’t enough to stop us talking to the outside world. Now we can’t even look at it either. A little later, a friend came in the shop. We hadn’t seen him since he was arrested by Daesh for the fourth time about a month ago.“You’re alive?!”I shouted“We thought you were dead!”He laughed with a weird smile on his face. He tells me that the last time he was arrested, it was because his trousers were too long. Daesh insists that they should always be above ankle length. Anyone found breaking this rule has to undergo a week-long Sharia course. Then my mobile rang. It was my mother. She asked me to buy some groceries for the family But I can’t afford much these days. Tomatoes now cost more than 400 Syrian pounds and Rice is around 500! It’s terrible. On the way back I thought up lots of excuses to explain why I’d returned with so little food. But I didn’t need to. Like most parents here my mother was just delighted that hadn’t been arrested or killed and was safely home again. We thought we’d finished our compulsory Sharia Course. But then we heard we still had to attend night classes at the mosque as well. So too did many shop owners. This is why so many of Raqqa’s shops are shut. My friend didn’t show up to the lesson. When an Daesh guy demanded to know where he was we said he was ill. We later heard that they’d raided his home. But he wasn’t there. We’ve now finished the week long course and have officially re-entered Islam as born again Muslims. The next day I walked to work with confident strides. A Daesh man stopped me and asked if I’ve done my dawn prayers. “Yes, of course”.But he clearly thought I was lying. “Which bit of the Quran have you read?” I was saved when a woman who wasn’t covering her eyes properly walked past. The man rushed over to confront her. I carried on as quickly as I could to the shop where I work. But things got worse when I walked through the door. I was told that two men had come to the shop and asked where I was. I started to panic and my hands began to shake. I asked who they were. “I don’t know but one of them was carrying a gun.”Was I going to be lashed? Or sent to fight for Daesh on the front line? My first thought was to run away but I knew that they’d soon come after me. I spent the whole day thinking about those two men and what might happen. But nobody came to get me and soon as the shop closed I went straight home.“What’s wrong with you?”my mother asked“Why do you look so pale?”Mothers spot these sort of things. I had no appetite for dinner. I kept thinking how my mother would react if Daesh came to our home to get me. She kept asking what was worrying me but I wouldn’t say. I didn’t want to worry her. I didn’t sleep all night and I don’t think my mother did either. In the morning I left early and headed to the shop to open up. I’d rather they take me away from here, than in front of my mum. A tall armed man came in and I thought “This is it.” But he smiled and told me not to look so worried. The news wasn’t good about my friend. He’d been sentenced to death for missing the Sharia class. Thankfully the man in front of me had warned him and he’d run away before Daesh got him. Today has been a really scary day. In the evening I went to visit Mohammed, who is nearer my father’s age than mine. We sat down together and I asked if he could help me deal with the desperate situation we’re in. He told me “Live your life without considering the present.”“Imagine you’re walking on a rope, between two mountains.”“The present is the ground below.”“Walk straight ahead, and focus only on crossing the mountain.”“Never look down.”From now on I will take his advice and try to keep walking straight ahead until I reach the other mountain. When I get there, the present, will be gone. The sun is out for the first time in days. The brighter weather makes me feel optimistic. I’m able to push away gloomy thoughts for the first time in weeks. But the goods in our shop are getting dusty. They’re just not selling. The cost of getting them here through countless regime and Daesh checkpoints has made them so expensive. We sell less in two months under Daesh than we did in one week before. And that’s not only down to soaring prices. many people just don’t go out on the streets anymore. To make matters worse Daesh recently ordered all shopkeepers to limit their mark-up on goods to 25%. And they charge us tax on top of that. Then there’s the cost of cleaning and electricity, when we can get it. We’re basically making a loss. Traders are giving up. While I worry, the mother of a friend I met through the group comes into the shop. He was with us from the start of the revolution. But he gave up all activism when Daesh took over. Got married and settled down. Poor guy. He didn’t realise that they’d still come after him. Daesh knew of his previous involvement with the revolution and they arrested him several times. His mother looks worried and in deep despair. I ask her what’s wrong. She tells me that they’ve arrested her son in a raid on her home. I try to calm her down, saying they’re probably only questioning him, like they did plenty of times before. But she takes no comfort and tells me to leave the city before they get me too. Her words have really got to me. I walk around the city with a broken soul, looking at all the other broken souls passing by. Each pair of eyes that passes tells a different story… a different struggle. A couple of days pass. Around noon I’m arranging good on the shelves of my shop when an old friend comes in to see me He looks a little shocked and advises me not to take my usual route home that evening. He says there’s something he doesn’t want me to see But he doesn’t say what. In the end… curiosity gets the better of me. In front of my friend’s house I see a man with his head cut off. He’s been crucified too. A sign above his head reads:“a spy, a collaborator that worked against the Islamic State”.It’s him I can’t believe it. I’m in such a state that I can’t go home. I don’t want my mother to see me like this How could they do that?! Leave his butchered body in front of his mother’s house?! In front of his family. I’ve decided I can’t take this anymore. It’s getting worse by the day. They’re carrying out raids on the houses of anyone who ever had anything to do with the revolution. Even if it was many months or years ago. I was one of those guys. I’ve distanced myself from anyone I used to go to protests with. I didn’t want them suspecting me or them. But it’s not enough. I’ve decided to leave.