RAQQA — The ISIS terror group has transformed Syria’s Raqqa province into what can only be described as an enormous prison. The Islamist fighters prohibit most people from traveling beyond the borders, even to other provinces, and communication with the outside world is limited.
Raqqa has also become a gathering place for the thousands of foreign fighters from dozens of countries who now dominate ISIS’s ranks. Locals say they have become virtual slaves to these extremist militants, who use brutal methods to maintain control. They also say that many have died at their hands, although the claims are impossible to verify. ISIS is also alleged to have seized thousands of houses from Kurds and others in the towns of Tal Akhdar, Tal Fandar and al-Yabisa, near the Tal Abyad area. These they have given to their fighters, who have come from around the world, including Uyghurs from China. Similar incidents have been reported in other parts of the province.
To understand what's happening inside Raqqa, Syria Deeply spoke by satellite phone and email with people living in the province. These are their stories.
"My brother, cousin and my brother’s friend were killed before my eyes when ISIS fighters stormed our house. They encircled the house and shot dead my brother, his friend and my cousin, who were trying to flee the house. Another bullet hit my 9-year-old sister. After they searched the house, they found nothing unusual there.
"Later, my 14-year-old cousin and I were arrested and taken to a basement that was used as a detention center. One ISIS fighter asked me whether I smoked. I said no. He sniffed my clothes and did the same with my cousin.
"I was pretty sure he was from the Arabian Gulf because of his accent. He said, 'I know you are secretly selling tobacco.' I answered, 'Is this why you killed my brother and cousin?' A week later, we were released, and nobody did anything about what happened to us."
– Ibrahim, a university student
"One evening, there was heavy knocking on our door. When my husband opened the door, three ISIS fighters started shouting and hitting my husband. One of the attackers was Tunisian, and the others seemed to be Chechens. When my brother-in-law tried to defend his brother, one of the Chechen men held him at gunpoint and said in broken Arabic, 'I’ll kill both of you, you infidels who listen to music and songs.' The music was coming from a show on TV, and the voice couldn't have been audible outside the house, and still they broke the TV.”
– Azab, a homemaker whose house was seized a short time later by one of the Chechen gunmen, who claimed they had left prayers early and accused them of hating ISIS
In Raqqa — Photo: David Enders/TNS/ZUMA
"If you don't get out of my face right now I will kill you. Weren’t you in Aleppo yesterday to communicate with the atheist regime? Leave or I’ll kill you."
– Yaser, an employee at a Syrian state-owned company, recounting what a Tunisian ISIS fighter told him when he returned from a trip to Aleppo to pick up his salary. The ISIS fighter had moved into Yaser’s house with his family while he was away for the day.
"One day, ISIS fighters came and seized the office for no reason. After many of my neighbors intervened, they allowed him to rent his own office from them."
– Abdullah, a shop assistant in Raqqa City, describing what happened to a relative who works in Damascus but has a local office
"I was a member of the Uwais al-Qarni Brigade. When the Brigade declared allegiance to ISIS, everything changed. ISIS started to impose its extreme regulations on every aspect of our lives, starting with smoking and including inciting people against their families because of alleged neglect of Allah's Sharia.
"I found myself a servant to foreigners. All decisions are made by those immigrants. The Syrians are worth nothing even if they were emirs. The Iraqis have the upper hand and they are the backbone of ISIS, and second in rank are the Tunisians and Chechens, the most ruthless of them all. The fighters of the Gulf are considered the most merciful.
"The people are mostly provoked by words like democracy, freedom or human rights. The Syrian fighters among ISIS started to show dissatisfaction, especially during the war on Kobani, where ISIS pushed the Syrian fighters to the front lines. Many of us shot and killed some of the immigrants back then. Later, when I returned to Tal Abyad, I talked to some of my friends and managed to bring my family from Raqqa, and then we all packed our bags and fled to Turkey."
– Issa, communicating via Skype from Turkey. He had been working in construction in Lebanon, but returned to Syria to check on his family after the city was taken by the opposition.