Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is a campaign launched by a group of non-violent activists in Raqqa to expose the atrocities committed by the terrorist extremist group “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria toward the civilian populations in the city.
Amnesty International carried out field investigations in the destroyed city
US-led Coalition fired vast number of imprecise explosive weapons in populated civilian area
Even Coalition precision bombs took a horrendous toll on civilians
Hundreds of civilians killed and then ‘Islamic State’ fighters allowed to leave
From amid the rubble of Raqqa, civilians are asking why US-led Coalition forces destroyed the city, killing hundreds of civilians in the process of “liberating” them from the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS), Amnesty International said in a new report ahead of the offensive’s anniversary.
Amnesty International researchers visited 42 Coalition air strike sites across the ruined city and interviewed 112 civilian residents who had survived the carnage and lost loved ones.
The accounts detailed in the report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, leave gaping holes in the Coalition’s insistence that their forces did enough to minimize civilian harm. The report details four emblematic cases of civilian families who were brutally impacted by the relentless aerial bombardment. Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes.
They are part of a wider pattern and provide a strong prima facie case that many Coalition attacks that killed and injured civilians and destroyed homes and infrastructure violated international humanitarian law.
“When so many civilians are killed in attack after attack, something is clearly wrong, and to make this tragedy worse, so many months later the incidents have not been investigated. The victims deserve justice,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“The Coalition’s claims that its precision air campaign allowed it to bomb IS out of Raqqa while causing very few civilian casualties do not stand up to scrutiny. On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we’ve seen in decades of covering the impact of wars.
“IS’s brutal four-year rule in Raqqa was rife with war crimes. But the violations of IS, including the use of civilians as human shields, do not relieve the Coalition of their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. What levelled the city and killed and injured so many civilians was the US-led Coalition’s repeated use of explosive weapons in populated areas where they knew civilians were trapped. Even precision weapons are only as precise as their choice of targets.”
‘War of annihilation’
Shortly before the military campaign, US Defence Secretary James Mattis promised a “war of annihilation” against IS.
From 6 June to 17 October 2017, the US-led Coalition operation to oust IS from its so-called “capital” Raqqa killed and injured thousands of civilians and destroyed much of the city. Homes, private and public buildings and infrastructure were reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair.
Residents were trapped as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, supported by the Coalition’s relentless air and artillery strikes. IS mined the escape routes and shot at civilians trying to flee. Hundreds of civilians were killed: some in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge; and others as they tried to flee.
US, British and French Coalition forces carried out tens of thousands of air strikes and US forces admitted to firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the offensive on Raqqa. US forces were responsible for more than 90% of the air strikes.
“A senior US military official said that more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the Viet Nam war. Given that artillery shells have margin of error of over 100 metres, it is no surprise that the result was mass civilian casualties,” said Donatella Rovera.
The victims highlighted in the report cut across the city’s socio-economic spectrum and range in age from a beloved one-year-old baby girl to a respected elder in his 80s. Some were forced to stay in the city as they were too poor to pay smugglers to get them out; others stayed because, having worked all their lives, they had too much to lose by leaving their homes and businesses behind.
Their harrowing stories and immense losses stand in stark contrast to the Coalition’s repeated claims that they took great pains to minimize civilian casualties. In September 2017, at the height of the conflict, Coalition commander US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend wrote that “…there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict”.
Raqqa residents, such as air strike survivor Munira Hashish, tell a different story: “Those who stayed died and those who tried to run away died. We couldn’t afford to pay the smugglers; we were trapped.” She and her children eventually managed to escape through a minefield “by walking over the blood of those who were blown up as they tried to flee ahead of us.”
All four families featured in the report suffered horrific ordeals.
The Aswads were a family of traders who had worked hard all their lives to construct a home in Raqqa. Some of them stayed behind to protect their belongings from looting, seeking shelter in their basement. But, on 28 June a Coalition air strike destroyed the building, killing eight civilians, mostly children. Another family member lost his life when he stepped on an IS mine when he returned to the city to try to recover the bodies days later.
Despite repeated attempts to flee, the Hashish family lost 18 members, mostly women and children, over a two-week period in August. A Coalition air strike killed nine, seven died as they tried to flee via a road which had been mined by IS, and two others were killed by a mortar launched by SDF.
The case of the Badran family perhaps best illustrates how dire the situation became for civilians trapped in Raqqa. Over the course of several weeks, 39 family members were killed in four separate Coalition air strikes as they moved from place to place inside the city, desperately trying to avoid rapidly shifting frontlines.
“We thought the forces who came to evict Daesh [IS] would know their business and would target Daesh and leave the civilians alone. We were naïve. By the time we had realised how dangerous it had become everywhere, it was too late; we were trapped,” Rasha Badran told Amnesty International. After several attempts to flee, she and her husband finally managed to escape, having lost their entire family, including their only child, a one-year-old girl named Tulip, whose tiny body they buried near a tree.
Finally, the Fayad case illustrates how a Coalition blitz during the final hours of the battle wiped out entire families in the Harat al-Badu area of central Raqqa, where IS fighters were known to be using civilians as human shields. The deaths of Mohammed “Abu Saif” Fayad and 15 family members and neighbours in Coalition air strikes early on 12 October seem all the more senseless because, just hours later, the SDF and the Coalition agreed a deal with IS, granting remaining IS fighters safe passage out of Raqqa.
“If the coalition and their SDF allies were ultimately going to grant IS fighters safe passage and impunity, what possible military advantage was there in destroying practically an entire city and killing so many civilians?” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International.
Potential war crimes
The Coalition strikes detailed in the report are examples of wider patterns. There is strong evidence that Coalition air and artillery strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians, including in disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks that violated international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes.
Amnesty International has written to defence officials in the USA, UK and France – whose forces carried out the air strikes over Raqqa – seeking additional information about these cases and about other attacks. The organization asked about Coalition tactics, specific means and methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in planning and execution of attacks and about any investigations carried out so far.
Amnesty International is urging Coalition members to investigate impartially and thoroughly allegations of violations and civilian casualties, and to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives and destruction of civilian property in Raqqa.
They must disclose the findings of their investigations, as well as key information about the strikes necessary for assessing their compliance with international humanitarian law. They must review the procedures by which they decide the credibility of civilian casualty allegations and they must ensure justice and reparation for victims of violations. They also have a responsibility to assist with gruelling demining and reconstruction work under way in Raqqa in a more meaningful way than at present.
“Raqqa’s civilians are returning home to ruins, pulling loved ones out of rubble, and facing death or injury from mines, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. The Coalition’s refusal to acknowledge its role in creating this catastrophic situation adds insult to injury,” said Benjamin Walsby.
More than sixty measles cases, along with a death of one child, have been reported in Ain Issa camp which is 50 km north Raqqa city. This camp is comprised of nearly 3000 tents inhabited by more than 20 thousand displaced people from Raqqa city and Deir Ez-zor.
Measles, a viral infection, usually impacts children most severely. Symptoms include rashes, slight fever, nausea, and mild pharyngitis. It is transmitted from one person to another via droplets of phlegm passing through the air during coughs and sneezes. Measles carries the risk of developing into encephalitis.
A staff from the camp’s health center informed an RBSS reporter that a Dutch team from Médecins Sans Frontières working in the camp is to launch a vaccination campaign in the coming days to combat the measles spreading. The campaign will target more than 10 thousand people, mostly children ranging from 6 months to 15 years old.
The suffering of civilians is increasing due to a chronic lack of primary health care and basic life necessities. The services provided are limited to the provision of drinking water and one meal each day. The absence of any role played by the so-called Raqqa Civil Council is shocking – especially since their office is just 900 meters away from the camp. In fact, the Council remains thoroughly preoccupied coordinating parades to glorify the terrorist Abullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK.
Since launching the battle for Raqqa, several camps have been established for internally displaced people (IDPs) who had to move from under the terrorist group’s control to the nationalist separatist group’s control. It should be noted that these camps do not provide even the most basic of human needs.
One of these camps is Tuehina Camp, 20 km northwest Tabqa city. It was established during the first quarter of 2017. This camp includes 15 thousand IDPs, most being from the eastern countryside of Hama.
The residents of Tuehina Camp suffer from harsh humanitarian conditions. They live in plastic tents that do not protect against the cold weather. People living there have had to use tree branches as wood for heating and cooking. There is no drinkable water or electricity, along with a severe shortage of basic health care services.
Residents of the camp have tried multiple times to submit their complaints to Raqqa Civil Council, which is affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, but to no avail.
In a related context, it is reported that several cases of leishmaniosis were diagnosed, as well as several cases of smallpox and measles due to the lack of basic health care.
In general, there are more than ten camps in Raqqa province that are populated with more than 150 thousand IDPs who have come from Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama, and Deir ez-Zor. All these camps share the same harsh humanitarian conditions.
“It never crossed my mind that my beloved gorge, where I had spent my time with the tourists and got paid, and where the local pigeons used to nest, would one day become a grave for human flesh and the repository of criminals’ and homicides’ secrets. Worst of all was the fact that my next dive inside the gorge will not be for the purpose of taking photos, but rather to retrieve my brother’s body.”
Omar came to silence after this sentence, he bit his lower lip and brought his eyebrows closer together in an attempt to hold back his tears.
He stood up and said: “I’ll go get the tea”.
I respected his emotions and the agony ignited by his memories.
He came back after he had washed his face, carrying the kettle and some cups and said: “The box should be unlocked so that everyone, absolutely everyone, can see what is happening to us, this is preposterous, I swear by the Ka’aba this is blasphemy”
When we were kids, our parents used to tell us terrifying stories about the gorge and the “Seloa” that lives in its depths. We used to tell many stories about the “Seloa”, and ascertain our listeners that we have spotted the creature as it left the gorge, often swearing that it has happened.
Countless pigeons used to fly in swarms ascending from the gorge and returning back to it later. We were convinced that these pigeons were owned by the “Seloa” and that if anyone ever dared to make traps and catch any, the “Seloa” would identify them, find them later amidst the darkness of the night and swallow them in a glimpse, even with them fully clothed.
I was rebellious as many people in their teenage years are. I was 15 years old when I decided to catch some pigeons without caring about the consequences. Peer pressure only served to make me ever more determined, so I stole some ropes from my parents and headed towards the “Seloa’s” den. I tied the rope around my waist on one side and to a rock on the other. As I descended into the gorge, my friends fled running back to our village. I made my way down doing my best to avoid looking below. As I got deeper and closer to the gorge’s bottom, I began to feel a cool, humid breeze, at the time, I thought to myself “It must be the Seola’s breath”, so I closed my eyes and continued my way down until I reached the tip of the rope. Pigeons were fluttering their wings around me as my heart fluttered along. The only thing that kept me going was my determination to brag about my adventure and to impress the girls of the village.
I opened my eyes, the light was so dim that I almost couldn’t see a thing, I stood on a pointed rock, amazed by the scene surrounding me, I sat down and beheld as the air current was pulling on me towards the dark bottom of the gorge. I can now see the “Seloa’s” home from the inside, so wide with its broad crypts and halls, the walls of its northern and eastern sides were straight and smooth, whereas its southern and western walls were filled with pointy rocks and caves.
My wandering eyes scanned through the place over and over, and I took my time to listen to the water murmuring through the walls and to the sound of a flowing river coming from the depths of the vestibule that faced me. I don’t know for how long I remained there until I eventually decided to make my way back up.
I placed a few pigeon squabs in my lap and began climbing. But sadly, the little creatures were crushed by the pressure of my body against the wall, and blood flowed down my clothes and legs.
As I approached the orifice of the gorge, I began to hear people mumbling in unrest. When I reached my destination I slowly began untying the rope as I flickered my eyes attempting to readapt to the brightness of daylight; and there they were, as far as the eye can see, the people of our village were gathered; men, women and children. Everyone kept still as I untangled the rope, none dared to take a step forward, so I began making my way towards the group; many stepped back as children ran away, but only one person ran towards me; my mother, but once she saw the blood covering my clothes she fainted, and I was deemed to bare the lashes from my father’s “Agal” as a punishment for my reckless adventure.
My mother examined every inch of my body as soon as she regained her consciousness, and girls looked away as she stripped me of my clothes to make sure that the Seloa hadn’t eaten my genitals.
The crowd walked alongside me as I listened to them discussing the ordeal that will swipe the village as a result of my invasion of the Seloa’s home and attacking her precious pigeons, I swear that many families deserted their homes in fear.
That was in the summer of 1990. Omar said.
Everyone claimed me to be the first person ever to climb into the gorge, and in a matter of days my father’s anger turned into pride. Later-on, people began telling stories about my adventure, stories that I had never said, of what I witnessed, and about what had occurred between the Seloa and me down there, how she looked and how her eyes were up-slanted, what her house looked like and how her bed was nothing but a pile of human bones.
There is always a first time for everything, and this saying is perfectly reflected in the concept of revolution, we have to enter the gorge; the gorge of the Syrian regime, the gorge of Da’esh or whoever resembled them. So trust me, the Seloa doesn’t exist, the only real Seloa is our fear.
My visits to the gorge with tourists continued, and were only periodically interrupted by my studies and later on by my mandatory military service. The gorge became a source of earning a living through the services that I offered to tourists.
I never thought that all this beauty was going to turn into a cemetery, and that pigeons would eventually eat human flesh, can you believe that pigeons would eat Human flesh!?
The first to dump dead bodies into the gorge was “Faisal Al-Ballou”, the commander “Emir” of “Al-Nusra Front” in Slouk. That happened on 09/18/2012 (Nowadays he is part of Da’esh, after they detained him for months under the accusation of theft; he is currently the commander of the tribal branch of Da’esh). I clearly remember that day; we couldn’t believe what had happened, 12 bodies belonging to militants in the regime’s army (SAA) who had been killed at the Beer Ashec checkpoint east of the city of Tal Abyad.
After “Faisal” and his gang left, I along with 3 other men, went down the gorge. We only found 2 bodies lying on the inside edges of the gorge’s orifice where rocks must have caught their fall, the first body was about 10 meters deep, the other 15 meters deep. As night fell, we retrieved the 2 bodies and buried them discretely.
Da’esh took control over Tal Abyad by the beginning of July of 2013 right after it kidnapped the members of the city’s local committee, that’s when it began throwing dead bodies as well as those alive down the gorge. During this period, one of my brothers joined the Islamic state (Da’esh). Omar said that while pointing to the room’s corner; where a very thin, skeleton-like man sat, his eyes were sunken, his hair completely white and his legs looked like those of a starved child.
I still remember that date, Omar said, it was July 14th of 2013. My brother had been appointed as a member of Hisbah at Slouk, which was Da’esh’s first Hisbah in Syria. My brother became close to “Abu Yasser Al-Iraqi”, the most prominent security leader in Da’esh in Tal Abyad, he maintained this position from mid-April of 2013 up until he was transferred to Al-Raqqa late this year.
“Abu Yasser” was responsible for kidnapping and assassinating activists, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), merchants and anyone who he personally believed was against Da’esh. His favorite place to dump the bodies of the dead, as well as those alive, was the gorge. He pointed to the man in the corner, and said: “This man is what remains of the gorge’s memory, but he has lost his own memory as you can see, and I’ll tell you his story in a bit”.
Could you believe it.. more than 3000 Syrian bodies belonging to Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis, people who hailed from different parts of Syria like Salamieh, Ifreen and Al-Suwaida, some of them fought with the FSA, others with the SAA and others were part of Da’esh’s little brother; Al-Nusra Front. They were Syrians, they were all Syrians and they were all thrown into the house of the Seloa.
The true Seloa is Da’esh.
Once, around the end of July of 2013, “Abu Yasser Al-Iraqi” arrived at our house to pick up my brother, he was accompanied by armed militants sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, and they held captive 4 men who fought with the “Ahfad Al-Rasoul” brigade of the FSA. All 4 of them were blind-folded and hand-cuffed.
Shortly after my brother’s return, he began to tell us what had happened: “we took them to the gorge, but we stopped the car about 20 meters before reaching it as ordered by “Abu Anas Al-Iraqi” and “Khalaf Al-Thiab aka Abu Musa’ab”, the latter was the commander “Emir” of Da’esh in Tal Abyad at the time.
They led the detained men to the gorge as they were still blindfolded, they then improvised an announcement stating that “Al-Baghdadi” himself had forgiven them, they then told them to run as fast as they could, and to only remove the blind-folds after counting to a hundred. The captivates believed the announcement and ran, only to fall deep into the Seloa’s house amidst the laughter of Da’esh militants.
A few days later, 8 Kurds from Tal Abyad were captured and led by a group of Da’esh personnel, including; “Abu Yasser Al-Iraqi”, “Mostafa Al-Omar aka The Alligator” who was the commander “Emir” of border security, “Abdul Aziz Al-Omar aka Abu Sleiman”, the “emir” of Al-Sherkrak and “Khalaf Al-Thiab aka Abu Musa’ab”. 5 of the Kurds were dead and 3 alive, all of which were thrown into the gorge.
The accusations that these Kurds faced were a just few of the prepackaged collection of accusations that Da’esh always uses, such as; apostasy, opposing the state, adultery, atheism, blasphemy, corrupting the land, treason, being an Activist, being part of “The Awakenings”, FSA, PKK, being “descendants of Satan” or even being a reporter, yes, simply for being a “reporter”.
The vast majority of the victims thrown into the gorge were from the men of Al-Raqqa, many of whose names were never known and kept secret by Da’esh as the dumping ceremony was exclusively attended by the “Alligators” Brigade, led by “Abu Yasser Al-Iraqi”.
As time passed by, dead bodies began to pile up in the gorge and an unbearable smell began to spread and it reached miles away. So Da’esh brought 14 crude oil tankers over from Deir Ezzor, along with 2 dumping trucks carrying over 300 bodies. The latter trucks dumped the bodies into the gorge as if they were disposing of garbage, then they spilled the crude oil into the gorge and set it on fire. The fire went on for days with its smoke rising and filling the atmosphere with the smell of oil and burnt flesh that you could smell miles away.
My brother’s strong relationship with “Abu Yasser” and his brigade soon came to an end, as my brother discovered that the boxes they were assigning him to deliver to whom they claimed to be “Military Experts” at the Turkish border, were nothing but boxes filled with stolen antiquities and artifacts, and those “Military Experts” were in fact Archaeological looters and traffickers. Those antiquities were later sold to businessmen. My brother also came to realize that the “Immigrant Jihadists” who were living on hill-tops were actually digging after our country’s antiquities to trade it in cultural trafficking.
My brother shared his concern with some of his comrades in Da’esh, and together they decided to file a complaint with “The Commander of the Believers; Al-Baghdadi”, but the news found its way to “Abu Yasser” beforehand. Subsequently, he led a detention campaign that spared no one, including my brother, who when they came to arrest him whispered in his wife’s ears:” They’re going to throw us into the gorge!”.
It was 10 AM on 07/12/2014, I headed to a home, located near the gorge, which belonged to Bedouins, and I began to monitor. Shortly after, as I expected, 3 cars appeared from afar making their way to the gorge, the ever-thirsty grave. Those cars were led by “Abu Yasser Al-Iraqi’s” car, which I knew very well. The cars pulled up at the gorge for no longer than 30 minutes, and then they took off. As soon as they were no longer in distance I made my way to the gorge. When I arrived I stood there and tried to listen carefully hoping to hear someone moaning or simply making a sound, but the whistling wind prohibited anything from being heard.
I drove my car in a hurry back to Slouk, grabbed a few rope reels, flashlights and a thick cloth called a “Joub”, which is a piece of double-felt usually used by carriers of wheat and barley sacs to protect their backs.
I made my way back to the gorge, tied the rope to my car’s bumper, wore the “Joub” on my back then I held a flashlight in one hand and bit onto another, while keeping a third one in my pocket, and I descended. A hushed moaning led me to the first person who was lying at 30 meters deep, as I estimated. He was facing down as a stream of blood gushed from his head, I reached out my hand to turn his head up and try to identify his face, but he suddenly slipped deep into the pit and landed in the bottom.
A few meters down, there was another man who I recognized by his clothes, he was my brother. I went further down and reached him, tied him to the “Joub” on my back and began to climb upwards, he felt as light as a sac of feathers, not as if I was carrying a 70 Kg man on my back. I kept climbing up, I believe that I climbed more than 40 meters. Once I made it to the surface, I placed my brother’s body on the ground, I had a feeling that he was alive as a brainstorm challenged me; where am I going to take him?
Unconsciously, I placed him in the trunk of my car and headed for the Turkish borders making my way through side-roads. I reached the borders at sunset. A smuggler helped me cross the border, where I headed to the nearest hospital.
17 days later, they told me that he was going to live. But he had been paralyzed from the waist down, lost his memory and had become mute. There he is, as you can see, being a part of Da’esh didn’t grant him any special protection.
It is forbidden to look down the dark hollow den of the Seloa, but if you happen to look; you’ll end up just like that, pointing to his brother. Omar Said.
During the battles between the terrorist group ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the city’s irrigation systems were targeted and massively destroyed. As such, large parts of the system are now completely out of service, which will lead to a huge problem for the area, as agriculture is the main source of income in the province of Raqqa.
“Beer Al-Hasham” is one of the largest irrigation projects in the province and it provides water for more than a hundred thousand acres of land. The project was implemented in 1985 by the General Establishment for Land Reclamation in Raqqa to raise the level of water delivered to other areas. The three irrigation pumps in Beer Al-Hasham are now completely out of service and massive damage has been wrought upon the city’s irrigation network.
The terrorist group ISIS bombed the irrigation control center before their surrender and withdrawal, which caused major failures in the whole system. If authorities continue to ignore this problem, the overall situation of the system will deteriorate and lead to tragic results.
Civilians from this area have appealed to International organizations, stakeholders, and local authorities to intervene as soon as possible. The issue of irrigation not only affects Raqqa province in particular, but the whole of Syria in general.
The mine removal process is being supervised by three organizations: Tatritk, Mac, and Rouj. These three organizations have indicated that there remain a large number of mines remaining in the northern part of the city as well as the city center. According to the organizations, the number of mines left is estimated to be around eight thousand, and the time needed to finish the work of removal should be approximately six months.
During the battle between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) inside the city of Raqqa, Assad regime forces managed to advance in the eastern countryside of Raqqa, south the Euphrates river. In a few days, these forces controlled several villages and towns in the eastern countryside of Raqqa and reached Ma’adan – the last town before entering Deir ez-Zor administrative areas. This advance came after heavy bombardment over the area launched by Russian warplanes.
It is worth mentioning that these villages and towns have been out of regime control since the beginning of 2013. However, this initial advance did not last, as in the past few days, ISIS announced that they have managed to regain control over several sites including Al Ghanem Alali, Zor Shammar, Bu Hamed, Mugla, and Salem Hamad. During this take over, at least a hundred militants from Assad’s forces were killed.
The regime had two objectives behind this operation, one of which is a military one aimed at controlling villages and towns in the eastern countryside of Raqqa in order to then advance into Deir ez-Zor province. The other objective is a political one, as the regime hopes to prove with these actions it’s aim was to fight terrorism.
In this battle and several other battles, the regime had taken advantage of the tribal society in the areas to form what is known as “The Tribal Army” – this time led by Turki Bu Hamid who was tasked with recruiting as many people as possible from the local area to fight. Similarly, the regime chose a governor for Raqqa and even an education directorate based in Sabkha and demanded all teachers from Raqqa travel to Sabkha to receive their salaries. All this was attempt to gain more control and legitimacy in the area.
All regime plans went awry in just two days. The terrorist group ISIS regained control over several villages and towns in the area during a remarkable absence of the Russian warplanes which had been a main supporter of the regime’s initial advance. ISIS’ surprising advance and the SDF’s military movements give the impression that there is a secret agreement between the US and Russian administrations that the east parts of Syria will be under the US control.
The Ba’ath party has relied on several methods to solidify their leadership including military interventions, external support, and exploitation of tribal elders. Some of those tribal elders refused to submit to the regime’s demands, and therefore became marginalized. Other tribal elders accepted the regime’s offers, thereby entering the Parliament to grant the regime the legitimacy of absolute leadership. In exchange for this allegiance, the compliant elders were given privileges such as being able to provide temporary employment contracts or move a soldier from one location to another.
Now, it is the era of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominance. The SDF have gained control large areas in Northeast Syria, especially lately in Raqqa province. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), who play the major role in the SDF, have been using the same policy the regime and ISIS used previously to gain legitimacy in the area. They are giving clan elders large privileges such as exemption from military service, restoration of confiscated lands, as well as ensured protection. However, these are the limits of privileges awarded, as these elders are not permitted to contribute in shaping the politics and policies of the area.
She sat just opposite of me and poured some coffee in my little cup with some cardamom seeds floating on the surface. She didn’t seem posh or phony wearing that simple dress that revealed her arms, her legs, and a little of her chest. She breathed her cigarette in deeply and stared through the glass window blowing smoke out of her mouth to form fancy little circles in front of her face.
“Many of their Jihad slogans are just lies,” she said. “Yes they are bearded, they pray, and they keep repeating a few verses from Quran about Jihad. But then you will soon realize that they are just cheap, greedy mercenaries who care only about their own interests at the expense of the religion. Anyway, they are not coming from another time in history, nor from Afghanistani caves. They’re well informed on many different levels – knowledge, security, military, media, journalism, and even social relations – yet definitely not religion.”
This is how Hajer started telling her story. The 25-year-old dissident had recently run away from the Al-Khansaa Battalion which is a female military group that affiliated with ISIS. Hajer had worked in one of the popular “night clubs” near the river. Hajer attempted to explain with she joined the terrorist organization, as there is a huge stigma now attached to her by an unforgiving society after working in that disreputable place.
Staring through the window at a flock of birds flying away, she lit up another cigarette and said, “I joined the battalion on 2/7/2014 – that’s five days after its launch. That was by the help of Um Rayan – the strongest woman in ISIS at that time. She’s from Tunisia. She came to Syria from Iraq after she had both her daughters married to two senior fighters, who in turn recommended her to form this new female military group called Al-Khansaa. I’d gotten to know Um Rayan with the help of another woman named Um Islam Al-Jazrawiyah, wife of the Saudian Abdullah Abo Islam.”
Squeezing a small black-head in her calf, she continues to talk, “ISIS broke the typical habit of all the other Islamic military groups by allowing women to join the terrorist organization and be in high executive positions. This kind of propaganda aims to lure in more women and girls who are attracted to the prospect of becoming full-fledged ISIS fighters. Look at the movies that they produce – tall fit women revealing their eyes in a sexy way to attract other men. Look at the portrayals of men – mysterious characters that stimulate a sense of curiosity and adventure.”
Lighting up yet another cigarette, she turned off her phone. There seemed to be an insistent caller on the other end of the line.
She continued, “Um Rayan, she’s a woman in charge of a hundred people. She’s got lightly colored brown skin and an athletic body type, despite being forty seven years old. She took care of me, so that’s why her assistant Kawther from Homs hated me the most.
“Am I talking and smoking too much, Sir?”
The story is, Al-Khansaa battalion was formed in 2/2/2014. The idea of forming a female fighting groups was considered long before then, but what made them hasten to launch it was the event which occurred near Al-Sbahiah check point when three ISIS fighters were murdered by men disguising themselves as females by concealing their true identities with Burqas. Another incident happened in Al-Mishlab as well where 4 ISIS fighters were murdered in a similar fashion. To prevent this from happening again, Um Rayan did her best to launch the female group as soon as possible and she was successful. Initially, we were 35 women – 3 Syrians, 2 Yemenis, 4 Saudis, 1 Kuwaiti, 7 Tunisians, 3 Libyans, 9 Chechnyans, 3 Egyptians, and 3 Iraqis.
“The urgent task of female fighters was to search women in streets and shops, lest another incident similar to what happened before could take place. Also, the group was tasked with punishing and correcting other women’s behavior. But that’s only part of the truth. In actuality, the main goal was to create ‘female jihadis’ – made up of both locals and immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25. Those were the main conditions when one joins them. Other things could be discussed later.”
The call for afternoon prayer went off loudly from the mosque near the place while we were sitting. She stopped talking and says, “Allahu Akbar. May Allah forgive us for what we did, and may we, someday, start to pray whole-heartfully, not with false intentions.”
She continued, “ISIS had expelled the Huzeifah ibn Al-Yaman battalion, a Free Syrian Army group that had joined ISIS previously, from the Hospitality Palace [a large location in town] and accommodated the single female fighter all together there instead. The married fighters were accommodated with their families in nearby luxury flats.”
She blew out a deep breath and said, “They occupied our land and founded their own community. The first office for the group was in the third floor of the Al-Karnak hotel and the training location was in the forest, north of the city. On 2/24/2014 we started our first shift accompanied by a pickup truck with a few male fighters to support us. And from the first day, Um Rayan had her heart securely focused on her goal. Our first task was to prevent female clothing shops from displaying clothes in their store fronts and commanding that they obscure all details on the female mannequins by covering their faces with plastic bags. We were then told that only women could sell female clothing, so we were ordered to have all female clothing shops, hairdressers, and decorators run by men shut down. Also, male OGYN doctors were then prevented from practicing their profession and all their clinics were shut down. Female doctors were ordered to only perform abortions for women married to ISIS members who had no-offspring contracts made in case the woman would become pregnant. This condition was always included in the marriage contract and only the permission of the woman’s father was required along with two witnesses, who usually were members of the organization.
“Do you remember what the Shabiha [pro-Syrian-regime militia] did in the southern suburbs of Aleppo? It’s just the same, and when a pregnancy happens, we do our job,” she said.
“After all women in the city started dressing the same and looking the same, the only way to distinguish them was by looking to their shoes! Women’s shoes and feet are quite different from men’s. So, we did catch four men disguised in women clothes, but it turned out they were ISIS members from Al-Tamaseeh military, one of the most brutal militia in ISIS. We got punished later by them for doing that!
“Later on, the real goals behind the formation of our group unfolded. It’s to secure marriage for immigrant members of the organization, though the Al-Khansaa group as well as the local community rejected the idea completely at first. Those in Al-Khansaa who wanted to marry ISIS fighters would express their desire by wearing a white sheet just behind their transparent Niqabs.
“European fighters in the organization preferred to have European women as wives on the basis of communication purposes. But then they started to ‘taste Syrian flesh’ on lustful basis, and not for political reasons as some people claim. Girls in the city did not fancy such relationships due to the fact that these men are complete strangers who act in a manner unfamiliar. Fatima from Salhabiyah is one example of a Syrian girl who refused to marry a Tunisian fighter after her father – lured by money – accepted the fighter’s proposal. The only way she could express her refusal was to kill herself. Fatima said ‘no’ by committing suicide on 3/5/2014.
“We, women, are oppressed wherever we go, as were lots of ISIS women.
Many fighters abuse their wives using different sorts of violence and there’s no shelter those women can retreat to. Some of them dared to come and complain to us about the harsh and cruel behavior of their fighter-husbands, but what can we do for them? Nothing. I still remember when one came with burns from melted wax all over her body. He did that to her because she couldn’t keep up with her partner’s excessive sexual desires which were increased by his drug use.
On 3/2/2014 attempts at shutting down female schools started with attacks on both Hamida Altaher and Abdulhadi Kazim secondary schools. They scared the girls as much as they could. They shouted in their faces very loudly – criticizing the way they were dressed, commenting on very trivial things about their appearance like have a face cover that was too thin or a ponytail that was too high under the black veil or exposed eyebrows. They arrested 10 students, but when one of those girls shouted at them, “we do not lack intelligence or religious faith, but you want to take us back to the stone age when all you really care about is this,” and she pointed down to her genital area. She was told off very violently by them. Later the girls were whipped by Um Hamzeh as a punishment. Um Hamzeh is the former whipper in Ahrar Al-Sham military group. Teachers, however, did not get whipped, they got ‘bitten’ instead. One of them was transferred to the hospital as a result.
Hajer then interjected a side-thought into the conversation and said, “We only ate delivery food from Al Hadry, a famous restaurant in Raqqa, even juices. We only drank natural juice. I do not regret it. God knows that I left them forever.
You know, Europeans are more sadistic and violent than the others. For example, the British female fighters boast of brutal torture. The one who used the ‘biting’ tool is British – pure British. She also oversees where the Yazidi hostages are kept and used as sex slaves. She was known as Um Salama. I remember her very much. She was redheaded and men like this type of women. It is not just women’s jealousy, this is the truth.”
Hajer was surprised that I did not know the ‘biting tool’ she talked about, so she started describing it. “It is a metallic tool – very similar to pliers. There are different types of this tool – some have sharp edges on both sides and this one is used on women breasts, so you can imagine the pain and the damage. I remember one time there was a woman nursing her infant in Al-Rashid park. She was hiding no one could see her but we found her. She was tortured with this biting tool and transferred to the hospital as a result with a completely damaged breast.”
I asked Hajer, “Didn’t you feel afraid?” She answered, “No, maybe one time only. To be honest, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed torturing Syrian women – especially when their fathers or husbands were there. May God forgive us all. As I told you, I was afraid only one time when the International Coalition targeted the Al-Khansa headquarters, which was previously the political security building. I was 200 meters away from the building. 30 women died that day. The next day, they brought in a Jordanian pilot named Muath Al-KasasbehI and said he was the one who bombed the headquarters. I still remember how Um Salama and Um Rayan tortured him. It was the most brutal torturing I have ever seen. We also witnessed his execution – all 605 female fighters in Al Khansaa. At that time I actually cried.”
Hajer added, “What really confuses me is the religious courses. They use strange Hadiths. I really do not know where they got them from. Sometimes they bring up texts that are not in line with the principles of Islam, but we need to be loyal and interpret it vividly, without omitting or adding, may Allah forgive us.
“Prophethood will remain in you for as long as God decides for it to remain and then God will remove it when He decides to remove it. After Prophethood, there will be a rule on the style of prophethood, and it will exist for as long as God decides for it to exist. Then He will remove it when He decides to remove it. Then there will be a kingdom in which people will face trials and tribulations and it will continue to exist for as long as God decides for it to exist. Then He will remove it, when He decides to remove it. After this, there will be an oppressive kingdom and it will continue to exist for as long as God decides for it to exist. Then He will remove it, when He decides to remove it. Then there will once again be a rule on the style of Prophethood.
“This hadith is considered a weak one, but they teach it as if it was part of Quran.
As a woman I say that any country that does not respect women, or any state with laws that do not protect women’s rights, will disappear no matter who stands behind it – even if it wears the guise of Islam.”
In less than one week, these militias took control of all the villages and towns in Raqqa’s eastern countryside and have now reached the last remaining village of Ma’adan. It is worth noting that there were no violent battles in these towns and villages.