The Raqqa Diaries
An edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Crowds assaulted the dictator’s statues. Detainees were set free. A hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council. Nusra set up a Sharia court.
Then ISIS, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.
In January 2014 Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted, and some resisted as best they could.
“The Raqqa Diaries” are as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told. Their author, risking his life to break Daesh’s communications siege, goes by the pseudonym ‘Samer’. His group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC’s Mike Thomson, and a barebones version of the book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Raqqa is a generally conservative but deeply civilised city, its roots stretching to the Babylonian period. Samer describes its people as “humble” and friendly.
Under Assad, Samer’s father was detained for muttering against corruption. The family was forced to exchange its wealth for his freedom.
In 2011, Samer is himself detained and tortured for attending anti-regime protests. He flees to liberated territory, then returns when the regime retreats from Raqqa.
The Daesh takeover brings with it a surreal blend of Baathist totalitarianism and Salafi-Jihadist Islamism. The new rulers impose dress codes on both sexes, ban smoking and TVs, and implement compulsory prayers, evening classes and sharia courses where the people are told “we are heretics and need to be reintroduced to Islam.” Daesh stones women, throws gay men off roofs, and brutalises and conscripts children.
For executions they gather a crowd “as if they are about to stage a play”. ‘Apostates’ – retired regime soldiers, revolutionaries, citizen journalists – are beheaded by sword in the square and on roundabouts. The heads are hung on lamp posts and mounted on park faces.
Samer curses aloud when he stumbles across his neighbour’s decapitation, and is arrested and lashed for it. This is his first brush with Daesh. Next, his girlfriend is forcibly married to a Daesh fighter.
The air war rages – American strikes on Daesh buildings, Russian strikes on marketplaces. Samer’s home is hit, his father killed.
Daesh, in response, escalates the repression. “Every time they feel threatened, they lash out at us.” Every activist is a potential target. Everybody suffers from rocketing prices. While half-starved residents burn books to boil water, handsomely-waged jihadis impose a tax system indistinct from a protection racket.
Samer resists by writing. Because the internet cafes are staffed by spies, he sends encrypted text through two intermediaries to the outside world.
The net soon tightens around him. His friend Anas is crucified. Then a man called Khalid, who has memorised the entire Quran, criticises a Daesh sermon and is executed too, as “an enemy of Islam and Allah.”
“Islam is the most precious thing we have,” Samer writes, “a glimpse of light in these very dark times.” Raqqa’s Muslims keenly resent Daesh’s abuse of religion “to cover up their criminality”. Only a very few become true believers, and these are misfits like Waleed, a mentally-disturbed loner who executes his mother for disloyalty.
Samer eventually escapes, in stages, dodging checkpoints throughout the depopulated north. Those who accompany him carry their own terrible stories.
He ends up in a camp still inside Syria, short of food and medicine, circled by warplanes, and surrounded by “people like me … thousands who have fled their homes running from either Daesh or Assad’s regime.”
In conclusion he expresses persisting Syrian hopes for change, but also the fear, disappointment and growing despair of a people who want only to rule themselves, yet are constantly over-ruled. What, after all, will replace Daesh? The return of the Assad tyranny – which “feeds on darkness and grows ever stronger” – is not a solution. Like many Syrians, Samer believes there is a “special understanding between the regime and Daesh, like that between father and son.” Ibn Khaldun, the 14th Century historian, is quoted at the start: “Tyrants bring invaders.”
At the same time Samer fears that liberation by the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated SDF – the force currently approaching Raqqa – would “simply be passing from one terrible occupation to another”.
How do those still inside survive the situation? Not by living in the present. A wise man gives Samer this advice: “Imagine you’re walking on a rope between two mountains. The present is the ground below. Focus only on crossing to the other mountain.”