IIslamic State closed the doors of Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, to civilians and blocked their escape from the city more than a year ago. Then some of their fighters began taking money from civilians in return for allowing them to leave – up to $800 per person. Many residents do not have that kind of money, having lost their savings because of the war, and so found themselves stuck and in need of a means of survival.
I have lived in the city of Raqqa since it was occupied by Isis three years ago, and have worked for a number of news networks. I currently work for Sound and Picture, a group that documents events in areas under Isis control. Like about 5,000 families still living here, I haven’t given up on the idea that one day Raqqa will be beautiful again.
Nobody likes living under Isis’s control, being forced to follow their laws and exposed to danger on a daily basis. We lead double lives as a condition of our survival. Everyone has at least two personalities. The first personality despises Isis, but if this personality emerges outside the home it could lead to execution. Therefore a second personality is necessary.
That second personality must express an affinity for the militants, and emerges as soon as you see an Isis member or you are stopped at one of their checkpoints. When they ask what you think of Isis, you have to respond in a manner that pleases the militants, so you can pass and get on with your day. You even have to hide your first personality from your children, because militants make a point of asking them if their parents speak ill of the organisation.
A few months ago I had to pass through a checkpoint at night, and the militants on duty stopped me and began asking questions: where have you been? Where are you going? Why are you going out at night? Then they began asking religious questions, and said they would send me to a sharia education camp if I did not know the answers.
Many civilians wear the shalwar kameez and lengthen their beards and hair, pretending to imitate Isis fighters’ looks
I imagined going to a camp, and fighter jets bombing it and killing me. So I used my second personality, and began answering the militants’ questions with Islamic stories and legends of early Muslims. They were amazed, praised me and let me go. This was hilarious because I had invented most of the stories.
Here, a single mistake can cost a life. But civilians must struggle with internal conflict as well. We have to know when to use which personality, but also ensure that our false personalities don’t begin to control our real selves.
Many civilians here wear the shalwar kameez and lengthen their beards and hair, pretending to imitate Isis fighters’ looks, to avoid getting into trouble with the Hisbah, the religious police force. A short beard or pants can lead to a $150 fine, three months in prison or a trip to the sharia camp. A friend told me that he stayed at home for a month because he had burned off part of his beard while attempting to light a cigarette. Smoking is punishable by flogging.
In the last few months, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have attempted to take control of Raqqa, the situation for those stuck here has become even worse. Airstrikes and shelling continue throughout the day and have killed many people. Isis snipers target those who attempt to flee.
The city is devoid of doctors and the market is devoid of food. What food there was in our fridges has rotted because of the absence of electricity. Everyone knew the city would be besieged, but civilians could not stockpile food because prices are high. A month ago I had a loaf of bread and a bowl of za’atar (thyme), a cucumber and some halva. I couldn’t go out to buy more because no shops are selling food in my neighbourhood. Walking a long way was too dangerous because of the airstrikes.
But despite the snipers, the SDF’s control of more districts means it has become easier to escape. When one of my neighbours fled to an SDF-controlled area he gave me the key to his house, and told me there was food there I could take. I found some barley, a kilogram of thyme, a can of olives, a bag of bulgur, some dry bread and a pack containing six fossilised cigarettes. Others who have fled have also left food behind them. But I have been resisting Isis on the ground for three years and cannot give up now.
• Tim Ramadan is the pseudonym of a Syrian journalist based in Raqqa