Daily doses of dread in the ji­hadist ‘cap­i­tal’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christina Lamb

“To­day I saw an eight-year-old be­ing given a weapon to ex­e­cute an old man,” starts one of the en­tries in this heart-rend­ing book.

Such is a typ­i­cal day in­side the hell that is the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, the cap­i­tal of Is­lamic State. On an­other day, the writer sees a neigh­bour be­headed with a sword; when he com­plains he re­ceives 40 lashes. Women are stoned. Sev­ered heads are left dot­ted around on park rail­ings and lamp­posts as warn­ings.

It used to be that for­eign cor­re­spon­dents were the only peo­ple who could get sto­ries out of places such as Raqqa. But so­cial me­dia and the in­ter­net have changed that. At the same time, some ar­eas have be­come too haz­ardous for West­ern jour­nal­ists, as they would al­most cer­tainly be kid­napped or end up on a video hav­ing their head chopped off.

To fill this gap (and ex­plain what it is like for or­di­nary peo­ple liv­ing in dan­ger­ous coun­tries), a com­mon de­vice has been to use a di­ary by an in­sider. Malala Yousafzai came to fame through her BBC jour­nal of life un­der the Tal­iban as a school­girl who was banned from ed­u­ca­tion; Salam Pax, aka the Bagh­dad Blog­ger, also reached a global au­di­ence with his ac­count of the last days of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s regime.

Un­like for­eign cor­re­spon­dents, how­ever, such peo­ple don’t fly home af­ter fil­ing their copy. This makes the risks they take far greater. Most dan­ger­ous of all places is Raqqa. When Mike Thom­son, the BBC world af­fairs cor­re­spon­dent, tried to find some­one in­side to write a di­ary it must have seemed an im­pos­si­ble task.

One of the hall­marks of Is­lamic State, apart from ex­treme bru­tal­ity, is its con­trol over the me­dia. It churns out tweets, videos and mag­a­zines ex­tolling life in the caliphate from its own me­dia team, while mon­i­tor­ing in­ter­net cafes and ban­ning any­one else from speak­ing to West­ern me­dia on pain of death. Among the first peo­ple to be be­headed when it took con­trol of Raqqa in 2014 was a me­dia ac­tivist.

How­ever, one group that some­how man­aged to get ma­te­rial out was an or­gan­i­sa­tion call­ing it­self Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently. Even­tu­ally, its mem­bers were forced to flee, but Thom­son per­sisted, and made con­tact with an­other small and ex­tremely brave group of ac­tivists called al-Shar­qiya 24. Thus was born the Raqqa Di­aries, which be­gan as a se­ries of short broad­casts on BBC ra­dio, writ­ten by a 24year-old man un­der the pseu­do­nym Samer.

Start­ing the morn­ing hear­ing his mat­ter-of­fact ac­count of life in­side what he de­scribes as “a city of bro­ken souls” was com­pelling lis­ten­ing and a sure-fire way to put into per­spec­tive the wash­ing ma­chine break­ing down or a de­layed train.

The ma­te­rial was smug­gled out at huge risk. “We want the out­side world to know what is hap­pen­ing,” he ex­plains in The Raqqa Di­aries: Es­cape from Is­lamic State. “Things they might not other­wise imag­ine.”

In­deed, in its un­der­stated way, this book vividly de­tails al­most unimag­in­able things. An ex­tended ver­sion of the ra­dio di­aries, its de­pic­tion of life for those or­di­nary Syr­i­ans caught be­tween regime bomb­ing and Is­lamic State cru­elty con­sti­tutes a damn­ing con­dem­na­tion of the West’s fail­ure to act, and ex­plains why mil­lions have fled to Europe and else­where.

Samer tells of hope in the early days of rev­o­lu­tion, when he was a stu­dent and joined protests against the cor­rupt and hated As­sad regime. He re­turns home to Raqqa, and wakes up one day in March 2013 to gun­fire as the rebel Free Syr­ian Army takes over. Op­ti­mism, how­ever, quickly turns to de­spair as Is­lamic State, which had fought along­side the FSA, drives them out.

Soon re­li­gious po­lice are pa­trolling the streets, telling peo­ple how to dress, im­pos­ing taxes, ban­ning tele­vi­sions and forc­ing Samer and his friends into re-ed­u­ca­tion to be­come “proper Mus­lims”. Those who op­pose them are hunted and pub­licly ex­e­cuted. “Ev­ery day they make a crowd gather in the square as if they are about to stage a play,” he writes.

Samer never dwells on things, even when his fa­ther is killed in a regime airstrike that hits their home on Mother’s Day. But, as he de­scribes col­laps­ing on the floor in the hos­pi­tal, you can al­most hear his howl of an­guish. Pain even pur­sues him when he falls in love and the girl he has met is made to marry an Is­lamic State fighter to ob­tain her brother’s free­dom.

It is hard to stay dry-eyed at such tragedy, yet for me it is the de­tails that make this so com­pelling. The small model train, the only toy his fa­ther could afford, that is passed on to him and his broth­ers; the wretched­ness of not be­ing able to afford toma­toes for his mother.

Samer knows he is on the wanted list. Even­tu­ally, he flees to a camp in north­ern Syria, leav­ing his beloved mother so that he can save her the pain of see­ing him join the ranks of the slaugh­tered.

The war is about to move into its sixth year and for me per­haps the sad­dest lines of this book are these: “The area I am in is full of peo­ple like me. Thou­sands who have fled their homes, run­ning from ei­ther Daesh or As­sad’s regime. Their suf­fer­ing, and mine, is not over yet. It’s not even close to be­ing over.”

The book is beau­ti­fully pro­duced, with graphic il­lus­tra­tions by Scott Coello. It is only 106 pages, and fits in a hand­bag or brief­case. Ev­ery­one should spare a cou­ple of hours of their life read­ing it, to re­mind them­selves that, even in the dark­est depths of hu­man mis­ery, the bravest of souls still ex­ist.

is a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and co-au­thor of Nu­jeen: One Girl’s In­cred­i­ble Jour­ney from War-torn Syria in a Wheel­chair.

Is­lamic State fight­ers ride their tanks through Raqqa in June 2014

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