Egypt launches LGBT crack­down

In a deadly ur­ban game of hide and seek, Isis snipers try to hold out

The Guardian Weekly - - World roundup - Martin Chulov

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.”

Achil­leas Zaval­lis

Res­cue … a wounded fighter is as­sisted by Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces troops

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