Over the past few weeks, members of United Youth Journalists have been working diligently to bring you this feature. With Andrea Pozzetti from Italy leading this project, he, along with Lubna Hasoun from Syria, has been interviewing youth from Raqqa on what it is like to live in ISIS territory. We also had a few other journalists from the Middle East working with the Syrian journalist to translate interviews and materials. Unfortunately, some people did not allow us to post their interview, but it was useful to clear our ideas. After this research was completed, Andrea recorded our findings and has written this article, with the assistance of Tiffany Lee from Canada. This article on daily life in ISIS territory was an experiment of journalism through the internet. We were a small group of high school students from completely different countries and backgrounds, yet together, we were able to find information that no mainstream media outlet was providing. Life in ISIS Territory is the large report that we have put together to provide further insight on what life is like in Syria.
Every day, we hear of beheadings, executions, and mistreated refugees. We hear of Kurdish fights and ISIS offences, international pacts and coalitions, hostages, ransom requests, and improbable threats to the “western world”. But do we really know how people live there? By people, I don’t mean soldiers; I mean normal people. What happened to the students? To the workers?
After doing a google search, only a few complete works were found. This then raised the question, “How difficult could it be to trace a university student and ask him? It could be interesting to know how they live”. And that’s exactly what we did. We used Facebook to find people who are currently living or have lived in ISIS territory and willing to give us an interview. We started by going through the list of people who had “liked” the Free Syrian Army facebook page, as well as those who had repeated such gesture, this time concerning pages related to various cities under ISIS control. It was not an easy task. They had to be from a specific area and, going through various profiles, there were many who we avoided any contact with such as those with a profile picture of them holding a kalashnikov or had liked ISIS’ facebook page. Then, of course, you have to consider those who haven’t posted anything in years. The journalist from Syria contacted all of them, writing in both Arabic and English. We didn’t expect much, of course. After all, we were complete strangers, asking to random people to spend their time giving us an interview on big matters. But then, it happened. Out of the people we contacted, few replied. While some refused, didn’t view the messages or just ignored us, there were also those who gave us the green light.
There are 5 interviews which we are sharing with you now. Of those five interviews, three were done through a text chat, and two were done via Skype and recorded. Those of which were recorded were later written down. To be completely transparent, these interviews were not written as they were said as the information was written down in the simplest way possible without grammatical errors and other technicalities. Their transcription can be found at the bottom of the article. For privacy reasons, (only one of the five interviewees allowed us to say his name), I will call them A, B, C, A2 and Abd Al-aziz. A, A2 ( a second interview to clear some details) and Abd Al-Aziz were done through text chat.
Furthermore, we interviewed another person via Skype. And whilst we weren’t able to record the conversation, one of his stories will still be told. Also, he has confirmed much of our previously collected information and didn’t say anything in controversy. A, B and C are aged between 19 and 27 years of age. Most of them were out of ISIS territory at the time of the interview. Every one of them is from Raqqa.
At this point, I would like to remind you that this article was not created by professional journalists. It was curated and created by a group of teenagers who messaged people who have been in ISIS territory. All of the information you will find here was collected from the interviews, which are available at the top of this article.
Some of the interviews were noted down from audio files. Of those that we conducted through chat, there are none that hasn’t got grammatical errors of any kind, and certainly reading only one would give a partial, if not wrong, view.
So, here are their stories.
Daily life has changed much since the “conquest” of ISIS. From what we understand, the city of Raqqa was under the control of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group, and was then later taken by ISIS forces. Since the conquest of Raqqa, ISIS has shaped daily life through their presence and influence.
Militants walk in the city among the civilians nowadays. Their bases are targeted by the Coalition’s bombings, but now that they have started renting apartments among civilians, in A’s opinion, they are almost untouched by it. The ISIS militants carry weapons with them, and according to our sources, some wear suicide vests. Their numbers may reach, according to A, approximately 10,000 units. Through various interviews and external sources, it has appeared to us that the main function of those units is to ensure that no infringements of the laws are committed. As reported by A, crimes have actually decreased in number. The “police” are not effective, as robberies do not get investigated and they will simply put a bounty on the robber, yet the terror ISIS causes is sufficient motivation for stopping any criminal activity.
ISIS has put in place many new laws in Raqqa. Multiple laws of which relate to women. Firstly, women cannot go out into the streets without being covered with a niqab. Furthermore, another garment was introduced and is called “The Shield”. This is a layer that covers the face, in addition to the niqab. Women cannot go out into the streets if they are not accompanied by a “Mahram”, which is a term to define brother, son, husband or father. It is then clear that the goal of “The Shield” is to completely cover the woman head to toe, as if some of their skin transpires, not only the women, but the Mahram as well, are punished. If the female is found walking with a boy, who is a friend, they are both arrested and lashed. ISIS is clearly strict when it comes to the male-female relationships, and there are multiple cases in which they force women to marry ISIS men. Apparently, there were approximately 70-80 cases of marriages to ISIS men. In Raqqa, “Al-Khansaa” battalion is a women’s battalion concerned with the prosecution of women. Last year, the battalion would go to schools and tell girls that they would get married to immigrant ISIS members. An example of a specific case would be one that occurred in June 2014 in Raqqa. A second year Arabic literature university female student was forced to get married to a Saudi Arabian man. She then only faced two choices: get married to the man, or commit suicide. Her story concluded with her decision to commit suicide. If she had not committed suicide, she may have had the same story as other women who get married to ISIS fighters. Frequently, when a woman is married to an ISIS fighter, he may die in battle and according to Arab tradition, the children are then raised by the woman’s parents. However, 70% of ISIS members are not Syrians, and some are not even Arabs and instead, are westerners or Europeans. The women can also join ISIS’ ranks, but they have to get the consent of their relatives’ and their salary will be less than that of a man. If they are not working for ISIS, most women have lost the right to work, except for the teachers and nurses.
What is more, it appears that most of the activities have stopped. Not only women have lost their jobs, but men as well. According to A, 90% of the people in Raqqa lost their jobs and many do not have occupations. Sports and other activities have also stopped, as cafes and shops are closed. “People just stay home and care about living day to day. You can just close yourself in your house and wait [to see] what will happen”. There are frequent bombings, of which three of the interviewees have pointed out a difference. While the International Coalition’s bombings have been confirmed targeting ISIS bases and camps, the Syrian government’s bombings apparently do not make a distinction and kill lots of civilians. People, as a result, prefer to sleep in the central room of their house to avoid debris.
Another important thing is the compulsory praying. Most of Raqqa’s citizens are Muslims, but they don’t share equal religiosity. Some of them used to pray, and some did not. But nowadays, shops have to close five times a day, for 15 minutes at prayer time, and every citizen should pray, even in the streets. 90% of the people who pray in the streets in Raqqa pray without ablution. Praying became a compulsory imposition by ISIS, not just something a typical Muslim should do. If you do not pray, you will get arrested or lashed 80 times, not to mention the accusations that you will receive. For example, if you do not pray or you get caught smoking, the accusation will be that you are apostate from Islam, which was really big in Islamic history.
ISIS has been very unclear about education. According to B, “ISIS was confused about schools; at first, it opened them, then it closed them, then it closed them again, and now, it re-opened them”. This information, that at first we were a bit skeptical about, has been confirmed to us by some external informers that we have not interviewed officially yet. Also, according to A2, schools have been closed again, about three months ago. Some universities were closed and haven’t been opened yet, and probably never will be. Worth mentioning is the opening of a medicine school. The medicine school offers a 3-year education and is probably the only higher level education institute in Raqqa. Most of the teachers are from Mosul, but until now, no students have been studying in this university. I think the motive of such move is mainly to give some superior grade education as incentive for the hundreds of students who escape to continue their education to stay instead.
Many bans have been imposed in the education system, as well as multiple changes. ISIS has removed some subjects completely. Those of which we are certain of are Philosophy, National Studies and Physics. They have stopped some books from being studied, and have gone as far as to ban some. Many of these books come from subjects such as History, Music, Painting and Chemistry. ISIS has replaced these subjects with the study of the Quran, Hadeeth or Shari’a, and have even given students books to study for these new “subjects”. Furthermore, all schools must be separated by gender. Not only students, but teachers as well, have to be separated. It also seems that there are substantial differences in the Sharia and Quran studies between different genders. They also forced every teacher to receive a Shari’a training.
As you may have read, everyone is forced to pray five times a day and go to mosque. If not, they will receive a lashing. The shia people were not spared and accused of being apostates. The only other religion that survived was the Christian one. Christians were spared, but have to pay the Jizya, a tax of historical origins, that at the beginning, apparently regarded only those who could afford it at first, but then it was imposed to all Christians. Many have escaped, but for some it is impossible, as it is very expensive. Despite being spared, it is clear that ISIS has imposed their religious beliefs on the Christians in Raqqa as Christian women also have to wear a veil. Furthermore, they are not accepting of the Christian religion, as ISIS has burned various Christian churches.
Imams, on the other hand, are a much more complicated question. The information that we have gathered is at least, a bit contradictory, but as the rest of the information gathered was quite concordant and there was no reason to doubt of these people’s sincerity, a hypothesis was created. According to B, there are now 80 Imams in Raqqa, all of which work for ISIS. In addition to such numbers, 20-30 were executed. This interview originally led us to believe that there were approximately 100-110 Imams in Raqqa and that some were executed, while the remaining were either with ISIS or scared of it. According to Abd Al-Alziz, the number of Imams is 200, and 10 were executed. However, according to C and D, all the Imams in Raqqa are now working for ISIS and many of them are ISIS fighters who have been “promoted” to the rank of Imam. “All the Imams who speak or pray are from ISIS”, as “the first thing ISIS did was force all Imams to be on their side. If they were against ISIS, they would just execute them. They have killed so many in Raqqa”. It is clear that all the Imams are working for ISIS, as there is uniformity among the various mosques. All the Friday speeches are all the same in every mosque you go, and, as you may assume, they are made by ISIS. Also being of notable mention is when Abd Al-Aziz was asked about the Imams seen in various execution videos standing and praying over soon to be executed victims, he said “those are not al raqqa imams, those are ISIS imams and most of them are foreigners”. Through the evidence from the interviews, we can safely conclude that some of the original Imams were executed (the most plausible number being around 20), and that later, ISIS has, through fear and maybe a certain ideological compatibility, convinced or possibly forced the rest of the Imams to join them, while some of the escaped or executed Imams were then replaced with ISIS members.
Food and some other basic goods have tripled their prices, according to some sources. The price of food is quite steep for some people, and those who cannot afford it see no other way to get money but to join ISIS. The price change was most likely due to the closing of the Turkish border, which has stopped a great flow of food in Syria. Now, it appears that most of the food comes from Iraq, and the prices are rising daily. Water is available, but it stops for some periods and sometimes not clean. According to C, many people are getting sick from it. Its pressure is not high, and “does not reach the upper floors of buildings”.
Under ISIS control, the number of “doctors at the Raqqa National hospital are few, and they have little medicine”. Medical infrastructures of Raqqa and Mosul are not efficient alone. One of our unofficial interviewees has told us a story that may explain this better. A girl who needed surgery needed to go to Damascus to receive her treatment, however, she was not allowed to go there. Instead of getting her the treatment she needed, they changed her name to “Ruqayya” (meaning: recovery) and had an Imam to pray for her.
In terms of electricity, the informations we received have been discordant about the number of hours in which it’s available, but they all range from 2 to 6. Internet connection is present, as “people inside Raqqa call it the “City of technology”, because if you search for Wifi networks, you will find five or six of them”. That being said, Internet cafes are subjected to the control of ISIS. Some militants occasionally or stably occupy them, and control what the people are talking about, “and there [has been] so many detention cases in Raqqa because of that kind of observation”. Many civilians use satellite connection, as one of our interviewees has said 70%. TV is visible at home, and every channel is available as before.
Executions are done publicly, in the middle of crowded places. They are done mostly by the sword. (Check the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently site for more details). Furthermore, no one is allowed to film anything, only ISIS’ media center can. Wearing jeans and shaving have also become forbidden, so all men must grow their beards now. No alcohol or smoking is permitted. Any of these infractions would be punished severely. For example, smoking a cigarette can cost you one month of detention and 80 lashes. We have gotten our hands on a list of laws which can be seen below.
Cursing the prophet: Death
Cursing Islam : Death
Sex without marriage: a hundred lashes in public and stoning
Homosexul act: death of the participants
Stealing: cut hand
Non-understandable. (maybe masturbation?): 80 lashes
Drinking Alcohol: 80 lashes
Leaving Islam: Death
Homicide for stealing: Crucifixion
Stealing money: Right hand and left foot cut
In every interview, what has transpired is that many people join ISIS because of the salary. The ciphers are a bit discordant, but they all agree on a pay that is approximately 200 dollars monthly for the single fighter. Salaries are higher if the fighter has a wife or kids.
More information on the salaries can be found in the interviews. Although they vary, they are all pretty concordant ciphers. The reason for the economic incentive for joining ISIS is the high taxes. Taxes for electricity and water are of 10,000 Syrian Pounds, about 50 dollars.
CIVILIAN POPULATION REACTIONS
ISIS has got some popular support, apparently. Some of our interviewees have given different opinions about it, but it seems like the number of supporters is small, and most of the recruits join for the salary. “When ISIS started, it was a small group in Raqqa, They were almost three or four Arab fighters, and ISIS supporters from Raqqa were people who got out of Saydnaya’s Muslim prison. They were the first members of ISIS in Raqqa. People who supported ISIS were people who had the fanatic thoughts and they were gathered in the same place which is Saydnaya prison in Damascus”.
COMMUNICATION WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD
A, who has escaped with a pullman, told us that every male had to pay to cross every Syrian Army block. In addition, some ISIS militants might check your phone and see your texts. If you have said something bad about ISIS, you will be arrested. In any case, they will delete every file. Further adding to the difficulty of escape, no woman under 50 can get out. Allegedly, there is some age limit for men too, but it is not clear from the interviews we have, and it may have been introduced at some definite point, because some of our sources don’t mention it.
WAS RAQQA ANY BETTER UNDER THE FSA?
The Free Syrian Army is a rebel group in Syria. It was born from a massive defection of the regular Syrian Army. It certainly appears better than Al-Nusra or other Jihadist rebels. Their troops mainly consist of Sunni Muslims, but there are also Shias, Alawites and Druzes in its ranks, and they have also allied with a mainly Christian rebel group, as well.
From the testimonies of our interviewees, it appears that the group, when controlling Raqqa, had carried a better administration, given free electricity and water 24 hours a day, permitted freedom of speech and reunion, and was generally better than ISIS administration. It would appear that some of our interviewees like the Free Syrian Army over the Syrian government too. However, while we were expecting a clear inclination towards Assad when asking to compare the Syrian Government and ISIS, most said that they are both equally bad.
Other unofficial interviewees, however, have given us additional information. The Free Syrian Army has apparently been cutting landline Internet in Raqqa to force people to buy Al-Thoraya, and (as we believe all armed groups do) they have stolen private property from Raqqan houses during shootouts. The sacking of private property during confronts is a major problem for civilians as to protect their belongings, they would have to stay in the crossfire.
It has also been reported to us that most students prefer to flee rebel areas to get in the regime area because it holds instruction and the basic infrastructures, those that no rebel or the Islamic State could build in a few months.
While some of our interviewees told us that Raqqa’s situation was better under FSA’s control, during a second interview conducted with A, the FSA period revealed to be unsafe, with closed schools and a lot of kidnappings and robbings. What I thought could represent a moderate and secularist group among Islamic fighters and despotic governments revealed to be a semi-criminal organization. To help determine the difference between various rebel groups, we will be furthering this investigation of how people live under FSA control through another article. Also upcoming are articles about Al-Nusra and other groups, as we think that a good way to show a rebel group’s ideology is to show how people live in the controlled territory.
It is our hope that we have given you some interesting things to think about, and provided an extended, clear insight in the daily life of citizens facing ISIS control.
It is our intention, however, to give you a better picture, a clearer view of many areas. So this kind of article (interviews with people who live in less-covered regions) is hopefully going to repeat itself in the future. Also, we will for sure make another article about ISIS, hopefully completing the informations that we left untold.
PERSONAL CONCLUSION BY ANDREA POZZETTI
This idea has actually been rattling in my head for months.
It first came to me when I was talking with an Egyptian guy. I asked him what he thought about the current government, and he told me that it was controlled by Mubarak’s allies, or Mubarak himself through Morsi. Also, he told me that Morsi hadn’t a great control over the police and the military.
“This is really interesting”, I thought. This was essential information in judging Egypt’s government. How come I didn’t get it from Wikipedia? I had previously looked in Egypt’s page. Also, the information didn’t come from a reporter or a journalist, or a qualified expert in Middle Eastern politics. It came from an Egyptian teenager!
We further talked about the situation in Middle East. Censored media, journalists in danger, Al Jazeera network serving Qatar’s interests, and masses blindly believing in whatever they say. A true informational disaster. But then I thought, “Would it really be that difficult to involve some people? That way, no one would be able to lie. No one would be able to lie about riot repressing, and no one would be able to lie about massacres and executions. We would all know this kind of things”.
It was with great enthusiasm that I started searching for people who lived in ISIS borders, in association with my fellow journalist, a supervisor in United Youth Journalists. We started selecting some profiles of seemingly-neutral Raqqans and Iraqis. As I piled them up I also read some articles about Project Loon and a global network that reaches everywhere.
Will there be reporters in the future? Frankly, I don’t think so. Some newspapers and high-level information agencies may need them, but if 50% of the Raqqan population had a smartphone, and they could be connected to Internet always and for free, how can any government or dictator try to censor anything? It is a really simple idea. When they become conscience of the power they have in their hands, reporters will have no job to do. It’s going to be the citizens to film riots, city fights and crimes.
This process has just started, but it’s already big. It’s already visible. When searching for life in ISIS, I stumbled upon a really awesome project, called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”. The project is run by a group of people, some of which are inside Raqqa and some are outside. These people are risking their lives to film Raqqa for us. They are risking their lives so we can have the truth. It is a great source of informations about life in ISIS territory, and I had the pleasure to talk with one of its members personally.
I heavily recommend it to you, as it is one of the few free unbiased sources inside ISIS territory and a real example for future media.
This kind of journalism can save the Middle East from censorship. It can save the world from censorship, and do not think that it can just be for massacres and battles. It can also save us from biased sources. For example, look at Italy. The media have been in the hands of Berlusconi for years, and it was through these biased comments and sources that he kept his power. Participative journalism is simple and effective. So please think about sharing your stories, but also comment on news and actively inform yourself. Think of informing the world.
May the world finally be without censorship, and may people understand each other’s different realities.
May this article be the first of many.