Raqqa, for me, was a window into freedom. The Syrian government arrested me in 2011 for photographing protests and posting them on social media. I was detained for nine months and released in mid-2012, but I did not return to my hometown of Deir Ezzor. Instead, I went to Raqqa, where nobody knew me and I would be safe from the regime. I joined protests again. This brief period was one of the best, as I had missed participating in demonstrations and activism.
When the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) first attacked Raqqa’s countryside and began arresting activists and opposition fighters in late 2013, I teamed up with an activist group to create Modawnat al-Raqqa (The Raqqa Log), a Twitter account on which we published violations by militants.
I remember the day Raqqa fell to ISIS in January 2014.
As we were driving back from documenting clashes between ISIS and opposition forces in Tal Abyad, masked militants clad in black stopped our car at a checkpoint near Raqqa’s al-Nour mosque. When they directed us to the side of the road and began speaking over their walkie-talkies, I made my escape. I jumped out of the vehicle and ran toward a friend’s house in a nearby neighborhood. I could hear the sound of gunshots behind me.
I was in a state of shock when I finally made it. My friend then told me that ISIS had taken the city and were setting up checkpoints to secure their grip.
My feeling that day reminds me of a line in a local Syrian folklore song: “I wish I were experiencing this pain myself, instead of you, you beautiful thing.” I wished that I was the one in pain, not Raqqa.
That night, a neighbor called to warn me that ISIS was looking for my cousin and me and had killed two of my friends. Fearing death or arrest, I spent the next month moving from home to home before deciding to flee to Turkey.
A close friend of mine, al-Mu’tazz Ibrahim, planned to leave with me. We took different routes to northern Raqqa province to avoid arousing suspicion. I waited 18 hours at the border crossing before entering Turkey. I later found out that my friend had not been allowed through.
In Turkey, a group of activists and I continued to document ISIS violations – some carried out against our own families. During my second month, I received news that ISIS had killed three of my cousins. One was like a brother to me; we had lived together for the past five years. ISIS killed him in the Hassakeh countryside and released pictures of his dismembered limbs.
A few days later I heard that ISIS killed my friend al-Mu’tazz when he tried once more to escape from Raqqa. In a week, I lost a best friend and a brother. It was enough for a total breakdown, but I only grew more determined. I refused to remain silent; I had to continue fighting ISIS by exposing their violations.
On April 16, 2015, four Turkey-based Syrian activists and I launched Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an online campaign to show the world what daily life is like under ISIS rule. We trained 18 reporters on the ground, opened a website in both English and Arabic and published videos and pictures from inside Raqqa through various social media platforms.
We divided up the work, documenting violations carried out by ISIS, the Syrian regime and eventually the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Before I left the campaign earlier this year, I was responsible for documentation and advocacy. There is a public outreach and social media management team and one for translation. We distributed flyers in Raqqa city and the countryside. During our graffiti campaign, our team plastered the walls with calls to overthrow ISIS.
ISIS soon began threatening us. Initially, they spoke of us in mosques during their sermons, and warned residents against working with us, but by 2015 the threats had become alarmingly real. They once published pictures on social media of the home I had recently moved into in Turkey. They posted photos of another member walking on a street in Turkey with his fiancee. It was clear that, even in our new country, we were not safe.
In mid-2015, ISIS released a video showing militants shooting dead the father of one of our members. They accused him of supporting RBSS even though he was not involved. They killed him because his son refused to surrender. Shortly after, ISIS killed two of our members in their homes in Turkey and, two weeks later, another in northern Idlib near the Turkish border.
At the end of 2015, activist and journalist Naji al-Jarf was killed in Gaziantep. Al-Jarf was a lifelong friend who taught me how to write, take pictures and manage advocacy campaigns. Every time I received a death threat, he would personally drive me to a new safe house. We considered him a guide, mentor and the leading force behind RBSS.
ISIS was getting much closer, but we never thought about stopping. We wouldn’t let our loved ones’ deaths be in vain. Those we lost were gone, and this was the time to honor them, by continuing our work.
We moved between safe houses for months after Naji’s assassination. Eventually, we decided to move to Germany. After several months of filling in paperwork, we were resettled.
We continued working online, but adapting to a new country was difficult. We struggled with the distance between the cities we lived in and with the new language. We were also suffering from the trauma of the threats and killings in Turkey.
When the SDF captured large areas of Raqqa’s countryside and Deir Ezzor from ISIS in early 2017, I no longer felt like I could contribute anything new to RBSS. I believed the United States-led coalition fighting ISIS cared only about beating the group militarily rather than ideologically. Not wanting ISIS to be like al-Qaida in Afghanistan – still in existence 30 years after the operation against it ended – I left RBSS to focus on counter-extremism projects.
I began researching ISIS’s school curriculum in cooperation with the activist-run Sound and Picture organization – a media network reporting ISIS violations in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Over the past two months, we have published eight reports outlining how ISIS disseminates its ideology in schools and through education. Currently, I am working on a research paper about how civilians perceived life under ISIS, and collaborating on a project to distribute publications that raise awareness about extremism in Raqqa’s countryside.
This intellectual war is the most important thing at this stage: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shells cannot kill the ideas that ISIS has developed, so we are going to try to take this on.
On Tuesday, I read that the SDF had captured Raqqa. Like many of its residents, I was not particularly happy. How could the news make me happy, when thousands of displaced civilians from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, including members of my own family, are living in squalid conditions in SDF-run camps? More than 80 percent of the city has been destroyed, and thousands have died in coalition airstrikes or as a result of SDF shelling.
For us, the so-called “liberation” of Raqqa is another occupation, this time by a Kurdish-led militia. I look forward to the day the SDF and its local councils leave the city, allowing its residents to assume control. When this happens, I will be the first to return. I will be sad that my loved ones who were killed in Raqqa don’t have graves, but to honor them I will consider the entire city holy.