Raqqa living in fear of ISIS
RAQQA - Just before his meal to break a day-long fast, middle-aged construction worker Abu Ibrahim turned to his wife to complain about Islamic State (ISIS) militants who control his province in northern Syria.
“We’re forced to pray and fast,” he grumbled, whispering to his wife as they sat on the front porch of their house in Raqqa.
The couple awaited their 9-year-old son, Ibrahim, and 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, to bring them their only meal of the day from an ISIS-run charity in the neighbourhood.
“Many are no more worshipping God out of conviction, but rather out of their fear of ISIS,” said Abu Ibrahim, sporting a traditional Arab headdress worn by tribes who dominate the area.
Raqqa, in northern Syria, became in 2013 the first city to fall to armed rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. A variety of rebel groups, ranging from hard-line Islamists to religious moderates, held sway there, although the Islamists dominated.
In 2014, ISIS clawed its way into control, ruthlessly eliminating rival insurgents. Critics were beheaded or escaped to Turkey. Government offices, health-care and education facilities were taken over. Alcohol was banned. Barber shops and movie theatres were shut down.
The marketplace closed by afternoon and streets were empty by nightfall. Communications with the outside world were allowed only through ISIS.
Rebels and activists who stayed behind largely “repented” by pledging alliance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and, once forgiven, they were allowed to keep their homes. Some even joined the group.
For Ibrahim, the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan under ISIS is making people “starve”.
“We wait for this one meal per day from the charity,” he said, pointing to a grain soup his son and daughter brought in from the charity, where a public kitchen is run by ISIS-enlisted pharmacist Mutaab Zueit, widely known as Abu Ahmed Tabibeh.
The pharmacist, who is also responsible for ISIS’s medical and health-care services in the city, prepares meals for an estimated 1,000 families each day. The menu is only legumes, occasionally with seasonable vegetables, depending on availability.
Raqqa residents said ISIS looted and razed all non-government organisations’ warehouses that used to distribute food and other supplies to residents. A relief agency worker, who declined to be identified for fear for his safety, said ISIS instead distributed its content to jihadists or to families assisting the militants.
“We have been fasting and hungry since the day this ominous ISIS ruled us,” sighed Abu Ibrahim.
In contrast, pictures of ISIS jihadists on social media networks, some shared by the group itself, show a handful of men with long dark beards and Afghan-style robes, smiling as they sit on a floor filled with various luscious Middle Eastern dishes.
A Raqqa widow, a mother of three girls who identified herself as Um Fatima, said she heard that ISIS was “collecting alms from wealthy Muslims, but failed to distribute that to poor people like us”.
Abu Ibrahim, who used a pseudonym to avoid ISIS retribution, said he was fired from his government job on suspicion that he worked for ISIS and was thus deprived of his only income.
“I only renovated a building that ISIS asked me to fix,” he said. “I didn’t get a penny for doing that.”
Arguably, Ramadan under ISIS is different as the group is preoccupied with maintaining its control over the territory after the nearby Tal Abyad was seized from the group by Kurdish rebels, backed by armed Syrian militias.
The capture of Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey, was a blow to ISIS, which used the area for smuggling weapons and ammunition into Raqqa, while exporting cheap oil to sell on the black market to finance its operations.
The arrival of 200,000 Syrians from Tal Abyad further strained ISIS and forced an across-the-board increase in prices. A 20-litre cylinder of kerosene fuel used for cooking sells at 5,000 Syrian pounds ($23) in Raqqa, compared with 1,500 pounds ($7) in Damascus. One kilogramme of bread is 300 pounds ($1.40), while it sells at 35 pounds (16 cents) in Damascus.
With ISIS’ attention focused north, Raqqa residents explained that the tight grip it had on their city has loosened.
Abu Anas, from Raqqa’s Bedouin district, said residents “are no longer forced to pray following the sundown meal, like last year”, when they were obliged to attend evening prayers and a sermon by a Tunisian jihadist.
“One would be in trouble if he left before this man, who’s in his 30s and spent half of his life in France and its bars, finished the sermon and we shook hands with him and thanked him for correcting our understanding of the religion,” Abu Anas said.
Abu Anas, also another pseudonym used for safety reasons, stressed that the number of foreign fighters in Raqqa has ebbed, saying, “We’re not seeing as many foreigners in town.
“They are busy with the fighting up north, which is giving us room to breathe,” he said. “I hope they’ll never come back and, if this happens before Ramadan is over, I will break my fast in celebration.”