“Extremists could never rule us. They are too serious” – a Raqqawi explains why they would never accept Daesh
One week before a key stage of the battle to liberate Raqqa, Abu Omar called his wife and son to join him for a chat. As his son Omar remembers, their conversation on the chilly morning of 1 June was the first time he was involved in such a serious family discussion.
Abu Omar asked his son to leave Raqqa at once and go to Manbij, while both parents would stay behind under Daesh rule. The 40-year-old father said all he wanted was to see his son safe and unharmed.
Twenty-two-year-old Omar looks at the ground while he describes how he gave in to parental pressure on leaving alone. He had Aleppo license plates on his car and wanted to disguise his escape as a journey to Aleppo to buy merchandise.
At first, he insisted his parents join him, but his father’s concern that this could jeopardize the whole thing — an entire family leaving together raises suspicion — prevailed in the end.
Abu Omar and his wife stayed behind to give their son a better chance of escape.
Since the moment Omar arrived in Manbij he has tried to establish contact with his parents — to no avail. He thinks the reason might be that Daesh decided to move his family from the outskirts of Raqqa into the heart of the city to use them as human shields.
Omar says he saw with his own eyes how Daesh fighters would hide in shelters and the basements of buildings, while civilians were sometimes forced to stay on the upper floors. This could only be attributed to Daesh’s desire for them to become victims of air campaigns.
Originally from rural Raqqa, Omar moved to the city in the early days of the revolution. He lived there throughout Daesh’s rule, though he would return to his home village, sometimes for months, to escape Daesh’s many rules and restrictions in the city.
Very few goods reached the countryside
Winter months would force him back, though, the scarcity of basic products and services in the countryside meaning rural life would get too hard.
“The situation in the city was no better than it was in the countryside, but at least markets were still active,” he says of his former life. “Smuggling routes between Raqqa and regime areas dried up, and very few goods reached the countryside.”
Omar talks at length about how the city lacked the very basics of life. He complains about being forced to use Daesh’s “official” documents for birth and marriage certificates and car licenses. All will need cancelling and reissuing once the group is defeated.
Worse still was the health situation in Raqqa. Epidemics hit the city like leishmaniosis, which is caused by the bit of certain sandflies, severe diarrhoea, fevers and migraines. The polluted water that people had to drink and the garbage strewn across the streets worsened things.
Omar, who has seen Daesh propaganda from within the so-called “caliphate”, underplays its effect, saying that the joyful and humourous nature of the people of Raqqa makes it impossible for the propaganda to take hold.
“People from Homs are known in Syria for their jokes and banter. We are known for enjoying them,” says Omar, continuing with a laugh, “Extremists could never rule us. They’re too serious!”
Very few of Raqqa’s youth joined Daesh, something that would decrease the number of retribution cases for crimes committed against people by the terrorists.
Very few of Raqqa’s youth joined Daesh
Omar believes that Daesh’s selection of Raqqa as one of their capitals made it attractive to foreign fighters and their families.
“Prior to Daesh, you rarely saw people from outside of Raqqa province in the city,” Omar says with wry irony. “Now it’s almost an international city, with people of over 50 nationalities — but of course I don’t consider this is a good thing in any way!”
Omar remembers his parents again and his good mood sinks.
“All I want right now is for them to get in touch with me,” he says. “I just need them to say they are okay.”
Omar has his high school diploma and was getting ready to study Arabic literature at Aleppo University when the situation got bad in Raqqa at the end of 2013. He could not leave so stayed to help his father in the carpenter’s shop his family owned.
He acquired some experience making home furniture and now uses his skill to earn a living.
“My friends in Manbij told me my carpentry skills would come in handy when Raqqa is liberated and I will definitely use them to help rebuild my city after Daesh,” he says. “Because I went to the woodshop every day, I picked up a hobby of making statues and shapes like horses and sheep. Daesh forbade us from making statues and figurines because ‘any representation of life is forbidden and punishable.’”
Omar is thrilled about the progress the SDF is making in Raqqa with the support of the Global Coalition. Having seen the drastic improvement of life in Manbij since the extremists left, he hopes this will be the model for Raqqa when it is liberated.
“When I was in Raqqa, Daesh would say that life is horrible outside the ‘caliphate’ and people are miserable under the SDF,” says Omar. “But I’ve seen with my own eyes how the local council provides services here, how trade is booming and how markets are lively and crowded.”
“I will meet them again”
He checks his phone every now and then but tries to hide his apprehension by talking about the sacrifices his father made to rescue him. Finally, he gives in to his thoughts, but remains hopeful.
“I have a very strong feeling that I will meet them again,” he says, “and I hope they were able to reach the safety of the SDF.”
And the stark struggle that he and his parents have faced in recent years has helped to re-order his own priorities. Going to university and getting a BA was once hugely important to Omar but now it comes second to his desire to contribute to the rebuilding of Raqqa when it is free.
“Raqqa is going through hard time but will come out strong and healthy,” he says. “We need to be prepared to nourish it and breathe life back again into our home.”