Suffering under ISIL rule: testimonies from al-Raqa

Female students who attend school in al-Raqa have been forced to wear Islamic dress or face floggings, resident Mohammed al-Hallaq told Al-Shorfa. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Female students who attend school in al-Raqa have been forced to wear Islamic dress or face floggings, resident Mohammed al-Hallaq told Al-Shorfa. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

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Syrian residents living under the rule of the al-Qaeda-inspired "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in al-Raqa suffer "daily oppression" and "crackdown on freedoms".

With these words Mohammed al-Hallaq described the way he feels living under the rule of al-Qaeda-inspired ISIL in al-Raqa.

Other al-Raqa residents told Al-Shorfa they are barely able to provide daily bread for their families and that ISIL elements are imposing a strict lifestyle on residents which impacts all aspects of life, including education.

Tight control over the education system

Al-Hallaq, a geography and history teacher, told Al-Shorfa that the educated who remain in al-Raqa fear the consequences of the control ISIL is exercising over the education system in the province.

"Some public schools opened their doors under the direct supervision or management of ISIL, and they use ISIL curricula, such as the Islamic School for Outstanding Students, whose students are selected from among the children of mujahideen, muhajireen and supporters, and whose staff of teachers and administrators are known for their full and complete adherence to religion," he said.

"ISIL did not stop at taking control of school administrations," he said. "It also conducts near-daily surprise inspections at schools, in particular at girls' schools, in which women-staffed inspection teams enter school campuses to ensure the girls are dressed in Islamic clothing."

Girls found in violation of the dress code are often punished with a flogging, a punishment also applied to school administrators for failing to monitor the dress code, al-Hallaq added.

ISIL's "education committee" closely monitors all teachers working at schools in al-Raqa city and its countryside, arresting any teacher who does not conform to its educational and ideological agendas, he said.

On more than one occasion, al-Hallaq said, he himself has been interrogated about his views.

He also was asked to submit suggestions and comments on modifications to the curricula related to the Crusades and other historical and geographical information to match ISIL views, with special focus on Islamic conquests and the importance of the application of sharia, al-Hallaq added.

The shortfall in teachers, as many of them fled to other areas of the country or left Syria altogether, has thinned the teaching ranks, he said, necessitating the employment of a number of retired teachers.

Retired teacher Mahmoud al-Amin said he was happy when he was told to come out of retirement and teach again but that this did not last long, for he was suspended by ISIL's education committee, interrogated and accused of being a liberal, promoting democracy and inciting students to reject the application of sharia.

He said he had been a secular activist more than 30 years ago, and that his brother, a journalist opposes Islamist groups, their rule and their views, fled Syria at the start of the events.

Abject poverty

Al-Amin said he is not currently collecting a pension from the Syrian government and was counting on his return to teaching to improve his financial situation.

Sometimes, he told Al-Shorfa, he cannot even buy bread for the family.

"I wait for the money my brother who lives abroad sends me at long intervals via his friends who come to al-Raqa through Turkey," he said.

"After I was suspended from teaching, I was summoned more than once to ISIL headquarters where I was questioned about my sources of income for daily living, and my answer, every time, was that I borrowed from friends or relatives, or sold some furniture," al-Amin added.

"I actually did sell much of my furniture, and all that remains are a few essential pieces," he said.

Families struggle to obtain daily food

Housewife and widow Tahani Baroud said she is finding it difficult to manage her household and its expenses.

The house is empty of food and provisions such as grain and vegetables which used to feed the household for weeks and even months, she added.

These days, she said, she goes to the market every day to buy necessities, and many days, her family of five has to do with only one meal, what with the high prices and her two sons unable to send money from abroad.

Baroud said she feels she has become a stranger in her own hometown when she sees the families of foreign fighters in the markets of the city, spending money without a care and buying items Syrian citizens cannot afford.

"Restaurant meals have become an absolute luxury, restricted to them only," she said. "The wives of fighters buy goods from the market with ease while Syrian women buy only after protracted haggling with the seller."

In the past, Baroud said, she used to enjoy the songs played by shop owners and street vendors, especially Fairuz's morning songs. "But this also has disappeared because it has become a prohibited [practice] that brings on a flogging by ISIL," she added.

"Out of need, I worked at a sewing factory, and the situation there is no different than it is in the city," she said. "Only women work there and they are of course dressed in black from head to toe, and the bulk of the factory's output is women's black Islamic abayas."

The local councils are active throughout al-Raqa province, "but they have no authority to decide any issues without first deferring to ISIL emirs and officials, especially in relation to the completion of renovations and repairs needed by all towns and villages", said Mustafa al-Fawaz, who works as a maintenance technician with the electric company.

The province has many resources, including oil, vast agricultural lands and grain silos, he said, and more than one entity provides aid to the region.

But the receipt and distribution of such resources is in the hands of ISIL, and priority goes to its foreign members, then its Syrian members and lastly its supporters and those closely associated with it, he said.

In many cases, those who oppose them are denied aid in order to subjugate them or force them to leave the region, al-Fawaz said.

"Restlessness is rampant among residents, and fear is the only thing keeping them quiet," he added. "Everybody is under pressure except ISIL members, as if the people of the province have become second-class citizens who must obey the orders of ISIL's members and its black takfiri views."

The black city

Sufyan al-Hellani, who began working as a street vendor after he lost his job at an accounting firm in Damascus, told Al-Shorfa he never expected to see such a profusion of the colour black on the streets of the city of al-Raqa,

Wherever you go, he said, you see women clad in black, the colour ISIL has forced the women of the city and the region to wear.

"All you see are women wearing black abayas with head and face veils, and ISIL's black flags are hoisted in public squares and atop roofs and light poles," al-Hellani said. "Whoever walks through the streets of the city during prayer time must participate [in prayer] to avoid being punished at the hands of ISIL members who force everyone to pray and shop owners to close shop and perform prayer, thus turning all the city's squares to public arenas for forced prayer."

The Christians of al-Raqa are subject to a "jizya" tax, whereby they are required to "pay the equivalent of the value of 13 grams of gold and are barred from practicing their religious rites in public, and [Christian] women are forced to wear the hijab just like Muslim women", he said.

Very few Christian families remain in al-Raqa, he said.

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  • READER COMMENTS

    رند البيرقدار

    2014-6-16

    Sufficient for me is God, and [He is] the best disposer of affairs.

  • th1400

    2014-5-14

    You liars, every part which is ruled by the government is going on peacefully and easily. The media war against the Islamists is unique and won't end, but the right will remain obvious to all fair people.

  • ابو محمد

    2014-5-14

    And the reverse migration, from Turkey to Al-Raka, indicates there’s change in the country.

  • بلال أبو هاجر

    2014-5-12

    All of this is a lie and a false accusation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the people of Al-Raqqa are living a happy and comfortable life.

  • حسين ابو محمد

    2014-5-12

    You call yourself an Islamic country, but you have to establish this country in your hearts before establishing it in reality.

  • ماجد

    2014-5-12

    God suffices me against the organization of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; it is an ignorant and unjust organization of Khawarij, extremists and killers. They do not know anything about Islam except cruelty, coarseness and acrimony towards the simple and ordinary Muslims. They perceive all non-follower Muslims as apostates or aggressors disobedient to al-Baghdadi, the Emir of the Khawarij, extremists and killers in Baghdad. The real Mujahedin are known for being merciful with ordinary people and having high morals, but these people only show boorishness, cruelty and vanity and they do not consider anybody else but themselves. God said about the Prophet, may God's peace and blessings be upon Him, "So by mercy from Allah , [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from around you.". They praise themselves and believe that nobody else owns the good and right but themselves. Where is justice and charity? Every Muslim wants Sharia and the return of the Islamic Caliphate to become even the largest Empire (if I may put it this way) in the world and history, but with justice, charity and mercy, O you group of ISIL. They impose their beliefs on people by force and killing. Sharia only brings mercy and good. Jihad has come only as a victory for the oppressed and to uphold God's Word, establish Justice and spread Islam. Jihad came with good tidings and mercy to the two worlds and the warning is only to intransigents and warriors. Jihad is not for oppression and injustice, but rather to make people worship the Lord of the worlds and to make them free from slavery except to God. They think themselves as a state and their Emir is the Caliph and anybody who does not believe in that should be killed for being an apostate or aggressor. May you, the group of ISIL, receive the punishment you deserve from God the all-mighty as you, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi; You disruptors of Jihad, killers of Muslims and Khawarij of the era. However, there are some members in the ISIL group who are deceived. I ask God to guide them out of the unjust, aggressive and killer organization.

  • صبري برسوم

    2014-5-3

    It is necessary for all human beings to fight against extremist thoughts.

  • mohammad ayyoub

    2014-5-3

    This article contains nothing but lies, hypocrisy, heresy, and hatred of the Jihad fighters who sold themselves to God Almighty and gained from the sale, God willing. By the one and only God, I can only agree that they’ve come true on their pledge to God and I cannot fault them before God. I think if the martyr Sheikh Abu Abdullah Bin Laden was alive he would have strengthened them, supported them, helped them, and given them advice and not criticised them or allowed them to be criticised, as was his pledge to the martyr Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That’s first, and second, if the Jihad fighters’ policy was to keep religion the way hypocrite countries keep it, the likes of the Evil-kingdom of the House of Saud-clowns and those who follow that treacherous approach, they wouldn’t have suffered this torture, killed like this, or be locked up in Guantanamo and the rest of the centres of the infidels and apostates’ intelligence services.

    • ماجد

      2014-5-12

      We seek God’s help against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This organization is run by oppressive, ignorant, takfiri and murderous people who know nothing of Islam but the roughness, even against the simple Muslims. All must Muslims, other than their own followers are either renegades or rebels against Al-Baghdadi, the emir of Khawaarij, killers and Takfiris. The true mujahidin were famous for their mercy towards the ordinary people and enjoy high morals. As for those people, they represent the pure roughness and cruelty as well as egoism. They see none but themselves forgetting that Allaah The Exalted Said to his apostle (what means): { It was by the mercy of Allah that thou wast lenient with them (O Muhammad), for if thou hadst been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from round about thee.} They believe that they are the bearers of the ultimate truth and right. Where are justice and fairness? Every Muslim wants to apply sharia and restore the Islamic caliphate. All Muslims wish to see the Islamic caliphate as the greatest empire in this world, so to speak. However, this should be done with mercy and justice. The people of the ISIS impose their beliefs on the people by force and bloodshed. Sharia is full of mercy and jihad means defending the weak and raising the God’s word, as well as establishment of justice, and spreading Islam. Jihad is a mercy to the world and a threat only to the obstinate enemies. Islam was not meant to suppress or oppress the people, but it main purpose is to make the people worship their true God alone and make them slaves only to Him. The members of the ISIS believe that they are a real state and that their emir is the caliph. Anyone opposes would be killed as an apostate or as a rebel. We seek God's help against the ISIS and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Those people spoiled the concept of jihad and killed the Muslims. Those are the contemporary Khawaarij. Nevertheless, I still see that some members of the ISIS are deceived and we ask God to guide them and make them leave this oppressive organization.

  • يوسف الغول

    2014-5-2

    Sufficient for me is God, and He is the best supporter against the ISIL and its state!

  • بنت اليمىوٍ

    2014-5-1

    Your day will come, wrongdoer. People's children won't be brought down.