While sitting on my cozy balcony in the safety of a European country, enjoying the view full of life outside, sipping coffee, I reminisce over the simple house I grew up in, in the city of Al-Raqqa, Syria, now the most dangerous city in the world as a result of conflict.
Al-Raqqa had been relatively undisturbed by protests, until after the Syrian civil uprising in 2011, when its citizens tried to raise their voices in protest against Assad. However, nobody paid attention, calling it the “sleeping city” and accusing it of assisting the Assad Regime. At first, I was completely against the option of arming the Syrian opposition, but our dictator went on slaughtering citizens and the international community watched on. When the Syrian Armed Forces opened fire on the protesters, I began to see that the only way to counter the regime’s violence, was with violence. One of my friends decided to fight the regime by joining the Free Syrian Army, only to die in battle a few months later.
In those moments, I became truly afraid, seeing only a future with a totalitarian regime wreaking havoc in Syria. The protesters never stopped fighting for their civil rights and the collapse of the regime, even when the Syrian Armed Forces used guns in their efforts to repress them. In the fighting, the sons of the city eventually overcame the army and freed the city from their presence. These ‘rebels’ were the ones who took care of Raqqa’s civil affairs and it began to flourish once again, being proclaimed as the capital city of the Syrian liberation.
Amidst all this, I had to cut my college education short, because my school was situated in Assad-controlled territory. As a son of Raqqa, it was impossible for me to stay there and face daily abuse, so I went back home, still afraid of getting caught by the Regime and being sent to prison. You see, that was the punishment for anyone who stood with Raqqa or even mentioned the city – the fate of many of my friends, who spent their last moments in jail, never having had a trial, and facing torture every day. Surprisingly, when I came back, everything seemed under control, but it was not to last.
Shelling became a daily occurrence, as did violence, murder, kidnapping and robbery. Citizens were divided into factions, and in this mess, a huge gang of monsters emerged who started to fight the opposition, pretending to be fighting under the banner of the Revolution, and asking for freedom, democracy, and equality. That group was ISIS.
They claimed they would create an Islamic State, but this un-Islamic State was to be built by shedding Raqqa’s blood. Ruling with baseness and cruelty, they oppressed the citizens and forced many to serve them or join them as soldiers. Whoever stepped out of line was arrested and killed, under the pretext of violating “God’s law”. Eventually, I had no choice but to leave the city, leaving behind my memories of a family home untouched by the evils of the world.
Soon, ISIS took my house, threatening my family and me with death if we ever came back. When we left, I had a conviction that the darkness wouldn’t last forever, so I left everything unchanged and promised myself that I would come back as soon as possible. Recently, I found out that a French national fighting for ISIS was living in my house, and my only wish was for him not to change a thing and keep everything as I had left it. Of course, the house is plunged in darkness now, yet I have never lost hope of going back.
For a while, I was living in exile outside the city’s borders, hoping to return eventually, but after a lot of disappointment and pressure, I, too, began the tough journey of a refugee, hoping to live in a safe place for a while. While crossing Europe, all I could think about was exactly how far I was from Raqqa. Although the map revealed that I was 3000 kilometres away, Raqqa was always with me, even after all these terrible events and a regime of criminals that brought war and despair that nobody in the world could stop. I now live in Lubeck, Germany, but in the end I still believe in Raqqa, the city from which darkness shall be washed away one day.