Escaping families from Raqqa spent eight days traveling secretly on foot at night in a journey fraught with the dangers posed by 'IS.' Their trek took them across northern Syria where they witnessed relentless war.
Umm Mohammad is sitting in the corner of a room, as she clenched one of her hands - her friends move closer to her. Abu Yasser breathes the smoke of his cigarette in an erratic fashion. The children mill around the dinner table which has a loaf of bread and potatoes on it. Umm Mohammad says, “This is the journey of escapees from death to death, life under ISIS [also known as 'IS', the ed. ] resembles death and the situation in Aleppo also. There’s no prospect of being free from death, but death at the hands of ISIS is like being prepared for death many times over.”
According to incoming reports from inside Raqqa, life is out of the ordinary - "Islamic State" ( IS) has taken the political approach of starving the citizens there. Their goal is to subjugate and compel them to pledge allegiance to the organization. Umm Mohammad says on the subject: “We can't stand this anywhere any longer.” Umm Mohammad was burdened with the situation of many others in Raqqa, where the IS put fees on everything - including health-related items which cannot be procured outside the city.
Taxes and starvation
She added: “They imposed taxes on everything, and we lived on the salary that I made from the ministry of training but at the same time ISIS has prohibited us from traveling to regions controlled by the regime and we’ve thus given up our salaries. They starve people in order to oblige them to pledge allegiance to them and many of us refuse to do that.”
As for how the civilians manage living together, Abu Yasser says: “Some people sacrifice everything to leave while others can’t afford the price of living outside (Raqqa) or a temporary stay in Turkey. Of those still living in Raqqa many are living on the aid that has been sent to them by relatives that have left.”
On the suffering of those living inside Raqqa, Umm Mohammad remarks: “They (IS) hate the civilians, and they know we hate them. They want to force us out of our homes to get their armed members to live in them – they are occupiers.”
Experiences of civilians: either death or death
Death was lesser to Abu Yasser than being forced to leave his home, according to his description, but his sick child was suffering from cancer. He was warned to treat his child outside of Raqqa, but he couldn’t bear to leave his house. He says, “My house is what helped me start my life and practice my profession of sewing in order to make a living. I started to do everything to separate myself from those savages. Only the sickness of my daughter made me have to get out completely to treat her.”
The land where Abu Yasser’s house sits has been prepared to be sold for months, except no one has come to purchase it because there’s no demand for it, and apart from that, there is no one who has enough money for the price of the house except for the members of ISIS, who have lined their pockets with dollars. But they are not able to take it over, Abu Yasser says: “If someone signs a document claiming their property, this is valid in the view of ISIS on the condition I return to Raqqa within three weeks after I leave”
The amount of money paid by those fleeing from the hell of IS is in thousands of Syrian lira, which equals about 180 U.S. dollars (160 euros). This is an expensive fee for those living inside Raqqa who seek to leave the oppression of IS by any means.
Tragedies don’t come one at a time
Umm Mohammad remarks: “The journey from Raqqa to Aleppo used to be around two hours by bus. Instead we spent eight days to get to the city of Azaz and then we had to spend two days hiding in one of the local schools in order to be able to enter the regime controlled region in Aleppo”
Usually the runaways cover long distances in a bus, where the driver traverses the fertile land that stands between them and IS. After that, they follow a secret path on foot, which can be up to 20 kilometers.
And sometimes they have to extend their secret journey to steer clear of IS, making sure they don’t get caught: “The smuggler takes us a distance of three or fourth kilometers by foot and then another car comes from the other side to take us to our destination.”
Things were not as they hoped for the escapees due to the airplanes above them firing at the surrounding villages under the cover of darkness. Their own days were dark nights, Umm Mohammad said: “We all lay down on the ground together, feeling nothing. We bleed without knowing the source of our pain.” Everybody believed that the airplanes should destroy all the centers of IS, but in that moment they were also scared of what would happen to the civilians.
Out of the pan and into the fire
Abu Yasser finishes by saying: “We started out in the ISIS-controlled region, then we were in the area of where there were clashes with the Free Syrian Army and planes flying over us bombing and striking randomly. We survived heavy bombing to head to the Kurdish region, where we were not allowed to enter and live.”
Tears began to run off the eyes of Abu Yasser, and Umm Mohammad finishes: “Everything we came across in our journey we trivialize now compared to what we face with Assad’s soldiers. Now everyone looks at us in contempt, not to mention the mental and physical insults.”
Many people from Raqqa suffer on their journey to the regime controlled area because they are considered apostates and traitors if they go there. On the other hand, IS is considered a terrorist organization in the eyes of Assad and his army: runaways from IS-controlled areas are vulnerable to blackmail or arrest for any reason, as well as the looks of contempt and inferiority they deal with as citizens. These citizens have no choice in the country in which they live.