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Eyewitness from Raqqa: ‘Isis plundered our lives’

SARA tells Swedish journalist Patrik Paulov what it was like living in the terrorist caliphate in Syria

IN NOVEMBER 2015 I was invited by the local Trade Union Education Association (ABF) to a seminar to talk about the Syrian war and the rise of terrorism in the Middle East.

In the meeting hall in a small city in the south of Sweden, many in the audience had their roots in the Middle East. Some of them had been in Sweden for a long time, others had come here as refugees with experiences of Isis terror.

After the lecture, a group of high school girls came up to me. Several of them came from Syria and they had a question: “In school, we talked about Isis. It was the United States that created Isis, wasn’t it?”

To say “yes!” without reservation would have been to simplify too much. Yet it is basically true. The US wars and actions in the Middle East in recent decades have paved the way for Isis and the terrorist caliphate we saw emerging in Iraq and Syria in the years of 2014-2015.

This was the general perception in Syria in 2015. The Washington Post quoted an opinion poll on September 15 made by British ORB International. Of 1,365 people surveyed throughout Syria, 82 per cent thought that Isis “is a group created by the United States and foreign forces.”

Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic representative in the US House of Representatives for 16 years, also accused his country of this crime.

On September 23, 2014, Kucinich wrote the following in the US paper, The Huffington Post: “The fact can’t be refuted: Isis was born of Western intervention in Iraq and covert action in Syria.

“This Frankenstein-like experiment of arming the alleged freedom-seeking Syrian opposition created the monster that roams the region.”

After the seminar, Sara from Raqqa sent me a message. She told me that she had been in the audience and that it was her friends who had approached me and asked about Isis.

I sent her questions about what it was like living in the capital of the caliphate. She answered but also wrote that it was not easy to speak about. The nightmares persisted despite the fact that sixteen months had passed since she fled to Sweden.

Later I got in touch with her to know more about what happened in Syria and to ask if I could include her story in my book.

After the protests began in Syria in 2011, the security forces and the military became more visible in Raqqa. Sara remembers that they came armed when students gathered outside the school after the semester tests. Much later than in other cities, some minor protests were held.

Sara says that a young boy was killed by the “regime” during one of these demonstrations. It aroused anger and the funeral became a huge demonstration.

According to Sara most people in Raqqa lived a simple life and just wanted to live in peace. The situation changed during the first months of 2013, when armed groups took control of the city.

“Nobody knew what was going on, but there were a lot of rumors that ‘the regime had fallen’, as we described it. We felt a certain joy, as we wanted a change in the situation in the country. But we also felt fear,” Sara says.

Her parents had never talked about Syrian politics while growing up. The children had heard about the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli massacres of the Palestinians. After the protests began, it emerged that the parents were not supporters of Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath party.

Sara points out that she and her family did not support the Free Syrian Army and the armed groups that came to the city. “We did not like either party.”

In March 2013, an alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and groups in the Free Syrian Army took control of Raqqa. Sara sent me a picture from her home when the fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra came.

The picture is taken obliquely from above and shows two black-clad people walking on the street outside the house. One of them carries a visible weapon.

Before the al-Qaida group arrived in Raqqa, posters had been circulated on how women should dress and behave. The schools were kept closed. For those who had the opportunity, private home education was conducted.

Sara says she was told that the armed groups stole machines from the sugar factory and sold them cheaply in Turkey. One of the warriors took a microscope from the large laboratory at Sara’s school and took it to a bookstore to try to sell it. He had no idea what it was.

I asked her how life changed when Isis took control of the city in early 2014. What was it like as a seventeen-year-old girl living in the caliphate?

“First, Isis did nothing. Then they fought against al-Nusra and the other groups. One night we were told that Isis would soon be defeated. The reverse happened. When we woke up the next day, Isis had taken over the city,” says Sara.

Then life changed quickly. A coercion to wear a veil was introduced and followed by wearing the abaya, the long black dress that is common in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and covers the usual clothing. Then came the demand for the niqab, which covers the entire face except the eyes.

“I hated my life. I cried a lot because I had to wear those clothes. Still, when I lived there, it was not as strict as it was during the last period with Isis.”

During the months Sara lived under Isis rule, homeschooling was banned, but her group continued to hold secret lessons. After she fled the city, only sharia schools were allowed.

“Isis fighters came from different countries, including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Many went to Raqqa and thought it was for the sake of Islam. They had gotten a wrong picture of Isis.

“This was especially true of those who had just converted to Islam and did not know much. Once in Raqqa, they could not return. I am a Muslim and I know how strictly people can interpret religion, but what Isis did had nothing to do with religion. It had political reasons, local and international.

“The leaders of Isis came from outside. From what I noticed, the local Isis fighters did not hold high positions. Those who joined did so because they were ignorant, felt powerless, or were just bad people.”

Violence was constantly present in the caliphate’s capital. Sara tells the story of people who were hanged or beheaded in the main square of the city. Of the Christians who had to pay taxes to stay in their homes. Of families who were forced to marry off their daughters to Isis fighters. Of young girls who preferred to take their own lives. Of children who grew up with guns and played football with severed heads.

“I think these children need help immediately, if they even can be cured. Otherwise, a new generation of Isis fighters will emerge.”

Sara, like other Syrians, expresses the view that there were greater interests behind the war and the emergence of terrorist groups such as Isis. It is about occupation and looting carried out by countries that at the same time try to maintain the image that they are democratic.

“They did not just plunder our money and resources. They plundered our lives.”

Sara’s name has been changed to protect her identity. Her testimony appears in Patrik Paulov’s book, Syria’s Silenced Voices (2021).

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