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Horror And Despair In Raqqa, Syrians Living Under ISIS Rule

Women wearing "the shield" in Raqqa
Women wearing "the shield" in Raqqa
Ahmad al-Bahri

RAQQA — Ever since ISIS captured the Syrian city of Raqqa in early 2014, residents have been consumed by fear and caution. The terrorist group has banned a dangerously long list of goods and behaviors, all of which carry a heavy punishment if violated.

Most noticeably, ISIS has forbidden women from leaving their homes without the supervision of a male relative, and they must wear what is deemed proper attire, dubbed "the shield" — a long, loose dress that covers them from head to toe. Smoking is banned, while it is also illegal to sell tobacco, recordings of secular music, and Arabic or Western films.

Men are not permitted to shave their beards and are forced to pray at the mosques. Law, physics, chemistry and sociology have been removed from academic curricula. And only ISIS members and supporters are allowed to have guns.

Men are also prohibited from wearing tight clothing or replicating Western dress codes. Shopkeepers who do not have saleswomen are not allowed to sell any women's products, and women's clothing is banned from being displayed in shop windows.

Anyone breaking these rules must answer to ISIS, and each transgression carries a specific punishment. In response, many of Raqqa's residents have left the city, and return infrequently just to visit. Others have fled after ISIS declared them apostates. Those remaining in the city deal with the fear and hardship of a new, bleak life where killing, torture and kidnapping are commonplace.

Mustafa, 27, is a Raqqa resident who decided to stay rather than flee his family home. The price of that decision has been his personal adaptation to a difficult new way of life. "In the marketplace or on the streets of Raqqa, I find myself wary, looking at the large number of ISIS members among us," he says.

"They are everywhere, and they carry arms. I find myself scared of seeing one of them heading my way or even looking at me to quickly check myself: Is there something wrong with the way I dress or with my things? Am I carrying something that's forbidden? Or that my cell phone has music on it or the names of people wanted by ISIS, or even pictures of my city, because I will automatically be accused of giving the enemy coordinates or of collaborating with them? That's why I and all the people of Raqqa delete everything off our phones."

The change has pushed Mustafa and others like him to change how they interact, even down to the language they use on the street. "Most people here, including myself, now use formal Arabic instead of colloquial Syrian, and we speak of the Islamic sharia, fatwas and religion," he says. "If an argument arises, we automatically talk about issuing fatwas and call each other kaffirsdisbelievers or infidels instead of appreciating the other's point of view."

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In Raqqa — Photo: Bertramz

He explains that he and others behave this way now because of how they understand the futile tradition that's been imposed on them — the daily interactions, the circulars and the sermon tents ISIS frequently sets up. "We even started using the word sheikh to refer to local authorities, imitating ISIS for fear of saying something else that would be deemed anti-Islamic. That's why we have copied ISIS in the way they talk and behave, as well as their daily routine."

Inciting fear with public executions

Abu Omar, 39, says that ISIS has implemented a new method of public intimidation: public executions carried out in brutal fashion.

"They arrange public executions and then decapitate the body of the civilian or prisoner of war," he says. "All of this is done in public squares in front of people. They herd people to watch the execution without giving any consideration that there are children and sensitive people among the crowd."

ISIS had even gone so far as to stick heads on the fences of public parks and squares, he says. Other heads are simply left in the street. This approach, Omar says, is used to fuel fear among residents, to send the message that they should not disobey ISIS.

Mustafa says he became eager to memorize some of the sayings of the Prophet and a few koranic verses, just to be ready in case ISIS ever questioned him and quizzed him on anything relating to Islam.

"I want to be able to give them the right answer to avoid punishment … so as not to be dragged to jail like cattle," he says. "It could escalate, and I could be whipped or tortured, because ISIS would think that I don't know enough about the sharia and Islam. I could even be killed if they considered me a kaffir."

Mustafa says ISIS has also left a visual mark on the city, and that the overwhelming use of the the color black is a constant reminder of the group's presence. "ISIS painted their headquarters black, as well as the walls at the markets," he says. "Women wear the black dresses, covered from head to toe in "the shield." Black ISIS flags are everywhere: on cars, in markets, on electricity poles and on street corners. ISIS members roam the streets and they too are dressed in black. In Raqqa, it seems the color black and fear go hand in hand."

And alongside the predominance of black comes a dark and sober message with stern religious overtones. "They write slogans that glorify their Islamic state and their caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," he says. "Sometimes, they write prophetic sayings and koranic verses, mostly the ones that show God's punishment and wrath, instead of writing the verses that remind us of God's mercy and tolerance."

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