An incredible escape from Daesh – and how colour is returning to Manbij in Syria
Abu Juma’a spends most of his day at his clothes shop in the 200-year-old covered market in Manbij. His two sons help their father run it.
The two boys are under 18, a fact their 55 year-old father is insistent on mentioning, because 18 is the age when young men can be conscripted into the military in Syria.
For Abu Juma’a’s business, the end of Daesh’s occupation has been a blessing that turned around his economic fortunes.
“Ever since the Syria Democratic Forces managed to liberate the city and free its people in July 2016, markets in general are booming and life is improving for the better,” he says.
Under Daesh, which controlled the city for two years, Abu Juma’a did not change his profession – but the type of clothes he sold changed dramatically.
Bright colours were outlawed by Daesh and those wearing them could be punished. The clothes he sold had to be completely black and thick enough that no part of the female body would be recognizable when in public.
“Life itself had darkened,” says Abu Juma’a recalling the enforcement of Daesh’s decree. “Hisbah would conduct regular visits to examine the thickness and color of women clothes.”
“Life itself had darkened”
He tells how the Hisbah [Daesh’s ‘morality police’] arrested him for ‘selling soft fabric women’s Abayas [a type of full-body cloak]’ and how they forced shop owners like him to employ women in shops to ensure no mingling between the two sexes.
For an entire month, Abu Juma’a had to close his shop. His wife was sick and could not work. Eventually, and for their own material gain, Daesh took their directive even further.
“[They] compelled owners to hire women vetted by Daesh to work at the shops in exchange for very high weekly rates,” says Abu Juma’a.
This and other measures enforced by the terror group resulted in stagnation of market activity. In turn, goods and products piled up in Manbij city because it was too hard to export them to regime or SDF controlled areas.
The economic hardships were by no means the worst that Abu Juma’a felt under Daesh.
Tale of unlikely survival
Every Manbij resident has a story to tell about how they survived the fierce battle that raged as the SDF fought to end Daesh rule of the city. The campaign lasted over 80 days and Abu Juma’a’s tale of unlikely survival stands out even among the most severe.
Sixty days into the battle and the city had run out of everything. Only Daesh fighters and their families were allowed anywhere near the supply storage facilities.
For three long days and nights, Abu Juma’a and his family were without food or water and their chances of survival were shrinking, even as the SDF reached within 150 metres of their house.
With the front line outside his door, Abu Juma’a was trapped. Even fleeing such a short distance seemed impossible with Daesh snipers eager to shoot escaping civilians.
On the dawn of the fourth day, desperate to get away and to survive, Abu Juma’a formed a risky plan to save his family.
He owned a small, old pick-up truck, its fuel tank down to the reserve, and he convinced his relatives to get in it with him and make a run for it. If the ignition worked and the fuel tank wasn’t completely dry, they could run the gauntlet of Daesh snipers and reach SDF lines.
“I told them: we either stay here and none of us survive, or we try to escape and some of us might make it,” he says.
Twelve members of Abu Juma’a’s family piled into the small truck, knowing they were rolling a dice – choosing the possibility of survival over certain death – and he started the engine with their lives in his hands.
He sat behind the wheel and slammed his foot to the floor, driving the truck as fast as it would go in the short distance.
“For 150 metres, Daesh snipers emptied their clips at us,” he says. “Seventeen bullets hit the tiny car!”
With tears of relief and joy filling his eyes, Abu Juma’a recounts what he calls “a miracle from God”. The truck made it and so did all its passengers.
“That car saved our lives, and I will keep it for as long as I live,” he says.
Once liberated, Manbij was connected again to the road network reaching almost all SDF controlled territories in north east Syria, allowing trade between cities to resume.
“Traders and shop owners who lost a lot during Daesh rule are now back to make up for their losses,” he says. “Goods are back on the market.”
“Goods are back on the market”
He is grateful for the support given to traders and shop owners by the newly elected Manbij Civil Council.
“They represent us more and our way of life,” he says. “Unlike Daesh, who were completely alien to our culture and traditions.”
While he has some concerns about the future of Manbij and the possibility that Bashar Al-Assad will remain the only internationally recognized ruler of Syria, Abu Juma’a has high hopes for the future.
“I hope that the political project of the Syria Democratic Council will be recognized, and we can start trading even with neighboring countries,” he says.
Trade is now booming and Abu Juma’a has expanded his business and opened two more shops. This pleases him but, he says, nothing could make him happier “than to see life filling the streets and markets again, and colours everywhere to enjoy.”