Egypt launches LGBT crackdown
In a deadly urban game of hide and seek, Isis snipers try to hold out
7 Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Egypt are living in fear following a wave of arrests and violence.
Rights groups say dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which began after rainbow flags were waved at a rock concert on the outskirts of Cairo last month, prompting a furious reaction in the Egyptian media.
The spike in arrests is part of an ongoing climate of repression. Homosexuality is not illegal under Egyptian law, but homosexual acts in public are. Euphemistic charges, such as “debauchery”, are often used by the authorities.
Abu Awad, a stalwart fighter of the Islamic State terror group, was unsettled. His battered men, who had taken shelter in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, were running low on supplies, and were losing patience – and discipline.
“Abu Osama,” he said on a radio frequency that his pursuers were monitoring two streets away, from the other side of the frontline of the brutal battle for Raqqa. “We don’t have water for ablutions, and we don’t have enough medicine to treat our injured.”
“Cleanse yourself with dirt and I will get some to you in the morning,” a man replied in a tired voice.
A young Kurdish rebel listening on a handheld radio recognised the voice. “He’s Syrian,” he said, as others from his unit crouched in the courtyard of a commandeered home. “That’s their leader, Abu Osama. One time [Isis] told us [on the same frequency]: ‘We will burn you, then bury you.’ There was no point replying.”
About 300 Isis fighters are all that are thought to be left in the city, clinging to a corner of the capital of their socalled caliphate, which five months of battle has shrunk to three annihilated neighbourhoods. The Old City mud wall that had stood for more than a millennium flanks one side of the battleground, and a wasteland that was once an industrial area stands on the other. Smoke from burning buildings mixed with grey dust from airstrikes shrouds the landscape. The extremists who have stayed have nowhere to go. Their fate is almost certain to be sealed in the apocalyptic ruins of the city where it all began for Isis in Syria more than four years ago.
What remains of the fight for Raqqa is concentrated on a maze of ruined streets and homes that lead towards Clock Tower Square, where severed heads were placed on stakes after killings by Isis that residents were summoned to witness. The simple ringed roundabout has, since 2013, been scorched into the global psyche as an emblem of Isis’s menace. In the eyes of many, its looming loss will seal the terror group’s demise.
Bricks and scorched, twisted metal cover two empty boulevards leading to the square. Isis snipers line either side. Capturing it will symbolically destroy the group’s hold on territory it conquered and has been losing for the past year. Through a hole in a wall used by a Kurdish sniper team, the square and its towering clock can be seen just under 500 metres away.
While Isis used the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul to lay claim to be a group inspired by faith, Clock Tower Square showcased its naked savagery and intimidation. “There were around 13 killings a month,” said a local pharmacist, Ismael, who fled the city six months ago and joined a US-backed coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “They used to line the roundabout wearing masks, and go around the streets with a loudspeaker ordering people to watch. If you were a spy they cut your throat from the front. The same if you were a blasphemer, or murderer. Magicians were beheaded from the back. Women were always shot.”
Fighters speak matter-of-factly about events that would have been unfathomable before the Isis reign. “They came to get my brother from our home,” said Moussa, 21, pointing at the ruins of a building down the road. “They cut his head and hung his body on a crucifix near Aleppo. We weren’t even allowed to ask why.”
Rami, another Arab fighter from Raqqa, also lost a brother to Isis members who came to his home. “They were Syrian, from among us, or else they wouldn’t have worn masks,” he said. “They also killed my mother at a checkpoint.”
The fighters based themselves in a three-storey building just over 1.6km south of the clock tower. A toppled articulated lorry blocked one entrance to the base, sand walls closed another.
On the second floor, Hazam, 28, a Kurd from Kobani, barked instructions into a radio held in his only hand. His left hand had been lost to a mortar in the fight for his hometown two years ago, and when he pointed the stub of his wrist to direct his men, it seemed to have extra effect.
Just past a graveyard, in which Isis had shattered every tombstone, six young fighters had been sent the night before to outflank the jihadis, but their position had been exposed. Two had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and the rest of the unit had been sent to rescue them. Hazam paced across a balcony as airstrikes thumped into Isis positions ahead. Shortly afterwards, there was a message on his radio. “Send the Hummer. We have two martyrs,” a man shouted. “And injuries. Four of them.”
An hour later, the US-supplied armoured Jeep – the only one the unit had – roared up the street, the legs of the dead dangling out of the back, the wounded crammed up front. A utility truck backed towards the Hummer, and the two bodies were lifted on to blankets and transferred to the open canopy. The wounded climbed in beside them. One wounded boy rested his head on a corpse as the truck set off for a clinic, past an overturned lorry and abandoned homes. Not a single civilian was left in east Raqqa.
On both sides of the front, men and women from around the world have lined up to fight. Members of global leftist groups – Americans, Turks, Germans and Spanish, among others – flesh out the ranks of Kurdish and Arab fighters. And, within the SDF, minorities from around the region have taken prominent positions.
At a medical centre, two Yazidi girls from Iraq – in their late teens, but looking older – hosed and swept a courtyard where the two dead fighters had been brought a few hours earlier. Their four wounded colleagues squatted nearby. The clinic’s doctor, Akif, a Kurd from the Turkish mountains, quickly dismissed their injuries. “They are just clumsy lads who need vitamins,” he said. “They can go back and fight.”
Akif held rank at the clinic, as did Turkish Kurds in two other frontline areas – where Hazam was based, and further away in the Samra suburb of Raqqa, where Hevda, a woman in her late 30s, ran a small but sensitive base. She swept the floors, cooked meals, kept guard, and held court whenever she wanted. Kurds and Arabs in the base deferred to her, as they did to Dalil, from the Turkish city of Batman, who sat alongside Hazam in the forward base. “The problem with Turkey is that it’s an intersection of capitalism and totalitarianism,” he
said. “They have played an unfortunate role in the region.” Using a pejorative term for the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he added: “The sultan’s time is ticking.”
Arab volunteers, many of them locals, are prominent on the frontlines and recruiting local men has fired the battle with a sense of personal vengeance. Near the frontline, with an Isis radio in one hand and a device to talk to his own men in the other, Elyas, 25, from Hasaka, said the role of the Raqqa ranks had been instrumental in the gains so far, as had precision airstrikes by a US-led coalition. “[Isis] know we don’t torture them if we catch them. I don’t even hate them,” he said. “They are ignorant people. They have been brainwashed. If we treat them like they treat us, we become like them.”
Elyas led his men through a hole blown in a wall near the front, then more holes smashed into adjoining homes, through which both the extremists and their pursuers move. A bicycle stood amid the wreckage of war in one room. Clothes and Islamic books covered the floor in another, beside rotting food. On the rooftop, Arab fighters crouched behind a wall, as a rocket from a fighter jet crunched into an Isis position. Smoke from the blast drifted over nearby grain silos and silhouetted the graveyard. “I love the feeling of battle,” said Elyas, as the sky darkened. “It’s delicious.”
As Isis withdrew, it burrowed underground to avoid the jets above. Tunnels are found most days, and nearly all have been booby-trapped.
The stench of death lingered where both a tunnel and an improvised bomb had been found. An Isis man had been discovered there the day before, and his body had been buried nearby.
As the terror group tires, the men hunting them down say the fall of Raqqa has galvanised them. Commanders believe the city will fall within three to five weeks, and there is increasingly nowhere left to hide for the extremists in the rubble and tunnels of what was once the centre of their rule in Syria.
The overwhelming destruction of Raqqa speaks of a place that has been through more than just warfare. The shattered psyche of the city hangs heavily over the battlefield. “Everything is broken,” said Ahmed Issa, a 25-year-old student. “My parents will never come back here. And I won’t let my sisters come. We are haunted by bad spirits here. Something needs to cleanse us.”
Rescue … a wounded fighter is assisted by Syrian Democratic Forces troops