In mid-2014, ISIS captured huge swathes of eastern Syria and began imprisoning large numbers of civilians in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS vehicles patrolled the cities, calling out over the speakers for all men to head toward the mosques or face punishment. Both fear and ISIS were trying to control us.
My name is Aghiad al-Kheder. I was one of the civilians in the city of Deir Ezzor who heard the announcement over the speakers. I got dressed as soon as I heard the message and headed to a nearby mosque in the city. At the mosque, there were men of different ages — some were over 70 years old. We sat in silence, without knowing what would happen. No one dared speak because there were armed ISIS fighters inside the mosque, watching us. We waited for an hour before an ISIS fighter entered the mosque wearing a suicide belt and holding a gun to his chest. He started telling us that we had entered a new era, one he called “The Islamic State,” and we had to pledge loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was saying phrases we had never heard before. He told us we must swear our absolute loyalty to Baghdadi, and anyone who refused would face the death penalty. We could not refuse. We all repeated what he told us.
The meeting finished and we left the mosque. I tried to look at the eyes of the other civilians who were there, but they were all looking down. I knew they had lost hope and felt betrayed. Everyone lost all hope in fighting this organization after it had defeated all armed resistance in the area.
I went back to my house and stayed there for four days without leaving. I was thinking of what was in store for us. I tried to stay away from the windows to avoid seeing ISIS fighters, who disgusted me.
On the fifth day, my self-imposed isolation ended when a friend who lives nearby visited me. We were trying to start some mundane conversation but could not avoid the topic of the situation under ISIS. Those days I had spent at home isolated me from what was happening outside. My friend told me about a beheaded body that was crucified in the city’s square, about ISIS detaining activists and how they cut off the hand of a civilian in the city. This was shocking. In just four days, ISIS committed horrors that made us realize what dark days lay ahead. I interrupted my friend, who was a painter, and asked if he had black spray paint. I asked him to bring it to me and then we could continue our conversation. He went to his workshop and brought the black spray, asking me why I needed it. I tried to hide my reasons in the beginning, but I trusted him and needed someone to help me. So I told him, “I will write anti-ISIS slogans at night.”
I didn’t ask him to come with me, because I knew that death would be the penalty if we were captured. Despite his initial shock at the idea, he wanted to come. He said he had a motorcycle which would make it easy for us to flee if someone spotted us. We agreed to head out at 1:00 am.
I sat with my family for ten hours before leaving the house, as if I was saying the last goodbye. I didn’t know what would happen that night. I looked at them like it would be the last time.
When the time came, my friend and I left our neighborhood together. I chose the market because there were no civilian houses there, and ISIS could not therefore take revenge on residents the next day. I picked a wall and quickly wrote, “Down with ISIS,” as my friend filmed it.
— 𝔸𝕘𝕙𝕚𝕒𝕕 𝔸𝕃-𝕂𝕙𝕖𝕕𝕖𝕣 (@aghiad_alkheder) July 30, 2017
I went back home that night but couldn’t sleep. I was waiting for people to see it in the morning, so ISIS fighters would know that the end of armed resistance against them wouldn’t mean the end of all resistance — we would resist in peaceful ways, too. I left the house and headed to the market to find ISIS fighters holding paint cans and trying to paint over the writing. People were passing by it and looking at it but not looking down. Everyone intentionally passed by the market that day to see the message. The news was widely shared by civilians, and they all wanted to see “Down with ISIS” written on the wall. I could see the happiness on their faces.
I sent the video to a friend outside Syria to publish it on media outlets. The media shared it quickly, and people outside Syria began sharing it on social media. Back in Deir Ezzor, ISIS started more night patrols. It was a victory for us because it meant their fighters had to go out at night, which made them more exhausted during the day.
After seeing the impact of this on ISIS fighters, I decided we should continue — but in a more organised way. I formed the group Sound and Picture, a handful of activists secretly reporting ISIS’s crimes. I began preparing the the team for this kind of work and choosing the best members from the group. Within a month, our team had spread out between ISIS’s two main cities, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. We prepared for this peaceful resistance by purchasing small quantities of printers and papers to avoid looking suspicious. We would distribute leaflets to local populations and document ISIS’s crimes.
We thought carefully about the type of the leaflets we wanted to distribute in secret and had many ideas. The first idea was to write the slogan, “ISIS and Assad are two sides of the same coin,” which contained a simple drawing with a few short sentences on freedom, standing against ISIS and calling for peaceful resistance. The second was funnier; we wrote, “keep calm and don’t join ISIS,” to stand against ISIS’s enlisting campaign. The third idea was a magazine called “Dabe’a,” which is a common word meaning a person who people hate, but also sounded like the name of ISIS’s magazine “Dabiq.” Our magazine was very similar to Dabiq’s layout, so people could carry and read it without raising suspicions, but the content was different. In it we would publish news on ISIS defeats and failures, which civilians couldn’t otherwise find out about.
As we were preparing, ISIS reduced its night patrols again. It was perfect timing. We would distribute the leaflets at the same time in both cities to distract ISIS fighters and keep them alert. The leaflets were widely liked by civilians, and some of them took some copies to show their families. We took photos of them and published them on social media to tell the world that the cities under ISIS control didn’t give up, and there is still a peaceful resistance.
Campaigns to distribute the leaflets were done at different times of the day. When ISIS reduced the number of night patrols, the activists would go at night and hang posters and leaflets in the streets. Our group gradually developed as we started campaigns to raise awareness among people about the dangers of ISIS, in addition to campaigns for women and children.
In 2015, I left Syria for Turkey but the team kept working under ISIS rule. They risked their lives to send us photos and videos, until it made ISIS so exhausted that they completely stopped the night patrols and just started clearing the leaflets in the morning to keep them away from civilians, who were becoming more and more aware of ISIS lies.