ISIS Held a Gun to My Head

Islamic State soldiers take over our city, and we learn to live with terror

Rania Ali
Rania Ali
Feb 8, 2018 · 12 min read
A house sparrow in Raqqa. Photo: Beshr Abdulhadi on Flickr

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What does “terror” mean to you? It’s a word you probably hear often, but what does terror actually feel like?

For me, terror felt like knowing that a bomb could drop from the sky at any moment, whether we were shopping for food or in bed, asleep. Terror was hearing someone scream that ISIS is doing a public execution right now, only five minutes away from where I was standing, so I felt nailed to the floor with fear, muscles tense and adrenaline coursing through my body. Terror was anger and sadness and confusion, not knowing what to do or where to go; my heart pounding through my chest.

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It was sometime in 2013, and I was in mathematics class at my school, Hamida al-Taher, when an ISIS soldier walked into the room. He singled me out and started yelling at me for not wearing a hijab. He told me I should be ashamed. “If I see you again I will whip you in the street myself,” he screamed.

The whole class was in shock, all staring at me and the soldier and wondering what was going to happen. I felt incredibly embarrassed. Yet this soldier looked so young and was probably shorter than most of the guys in the room.

My teacher, Mousa Alissa, stepped between us and defended me. “She is my daughter,” he said. “I will tell her to cover herself.”

Mousa always loved me because he said I worked hard, but I think he would have done the same to protect any of us. He was a hero to me that day.

The soldier kept yelling at me. I didn’t say a word but kept looking him straight in the face and tried not to cry. All I could think about was another girl I’d heard of who told a soldier that it wasn’t his job to ask her to cover herself. He’d taken her to prison. I kept my mouth shut.

Eventually he got bored of screaming at me and walked out of the room. And then I did cry, because I didn’t know how to defend myself against someone with a gun and no logic.

Things got worse in January 2014, when ISIS started sending regular patrols to all the schools and university faculties in Raqqa. They would usually send a dozen soldiers at a time, who would inspect every classroom and terrorize the students. The soldiers would tell them how life was going to be from now on and what their rules would be, and that if they saw a group of girls and boys together, they would all be taken to prison.

We resisted ISIS at first, of course, even in school. But they began to take people to prison or execute them on the spot, and when they started the public executions, people gave in to the fear. I remember the panic I felt every time they came to my school.

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Our high school exam results were to be announced one morning in July. I woke early and, because our phone lines were down, walked to an internet café with a friend to find out my results. As I was waiting for the café owner to dial the number for me, I saw that two ISIS soldiers were sitting right next to me. One of them was speaking in High Arabic (a more formal dialect used in ancient literature and poetry and in the Qur’an) and did not sound Kurdish or Syrian. I didn’t recognize his accent.

“Listen brother, I didn’t join the Islamic State because they gave me a wife or money or a gun. I joined because I believe in them and because I want to protect the people,” he said.

“Imagine exploding hundreds of ‘kufars’ with your explosive belt and going to ‘Jannah.’ This, brother, is the highest thing you can do for the Islamic State. And this is what I cannot wait to be chosen to do.”

I was so angry at what I was hearing. This was the first time I heard this kind of talk in Raqqa. What kind of logic is this, I thought to myself? How could anyone fall for that kind of argument? I looked at Bassam, the café owner, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. He shook his head without saying a word.

I couldn’t keep quiet, so I turned to the soldier and looked him in the eye. “Do you really believe that you are protecting us by killing innocent people? Who are you?” I said.

He looked back at me: “Sister, women should not interfere in the talk of men. You should have stayed at home.”

I looked away, furious and so saddened by what I had just heard. Bassam dialed the number for me, and as I made my call, the soldiers left. Bassam told me I shouldn’t talk to them, that someone like that would hurt me without blinking.

But I did find out my grades. I had passed my exams with an overall mark of 90 percent, which was very good, and I got 100 percent for maths, biology, English, and chemistry.

By late July, ISIS had closed all the public schools and wouldn’t allow girls and young women out of their homes unless they were accompanied by a male relative. Just before this happened, an ISIS soldier approached me in the street and held his gun to my head because he said I was not properly covered. Again I was petrified and said nothing. The only thought in my mind was that this would be the moment when I die and how terribly sad my father would feel when he finds out. I was with a friend that day, and I will never forget how she sobbed and begged him not to kill us, until he finally left.

I thought the only way I could fight against them was to fight against their rules, but in the end we all had to do what we were told. There were many people who fought heroically and who were murdered in the most horrific ways.

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August, and I was at my grandparents house in Raqqa when my uncle suddenly walked in, his face white with fear. He told us that ISIS was stoning a woman for committing adultery. He started describing how they gathered around her, and when their big “shiekh” told them to begin the execution, they started throwing rocks at her and cursing her.

I couldn’t believe this was real. I remembered watching a movie about a stoning in Iran. But that was a movie, and this was real life. This was real life. I couldn’t stop thinking about her for days, what she must have been feeling, how her family must have felt. Did they make her family watch her death?

Since ISIS started fighting in Raqqa in 2013, they destroyed much of the city, including a Shia m osque and three historic Shia shrines, two churches, and parts of the old city dating back to 700 AD, and they looted the museum. Then they closed down the stores and coffee shops and anything else they didn’t believe in.

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Al-Naim Café, Raqqa.

It turns out ISIS did believe in ice cream, however, because they didn’t close down the café in al-Naim Square. Owned by a local man, this café and ice cream parlor was the best place for ice cream in Raqqa. It used to be a favorite after-school hangout for me and my high school friends. It wasn’t particularly fancy or well decorated, but the owner cared a lot about his ice cream and had dozens of flavors: chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry, cherry, coffee, kiwi, and loads of others. I always liked vanilla and strawberry together.

It was one of very few cafés in Raqqa that ISIS didn’t close. When ISIS wasn’t fighting, local gossip was that they spent a lot of their time enjoying ice cream, as well as pastries from the shop next door. I remember people in Raqqa saying those two places made a fortune from the soldiers because they charged them more than locals. Everybody wondered how those soldiers had so much money and who was paying them.

By late 2014, many of the buildings in al-Naim Square were burnt out, the shops were closed down, and the park and gardens empty — except for the decapitated heads of people they claimed were traitors and spies, stuck on spikes. ISIS hung its black flags from windows, and locals abandoned the place. I hated going anywhere near it — the empty look on those dead, rotting faces. Al-Naim means paradise in English, so this was Paradise Square. But ISIS had turned it into hell.

I always worried that if we were to lose our home, it would be from a bomb, but eventually it was ISIS. They just walked in and took it. Our home, my bed, our TV, the sofa where I’d sit and talk for hours with my father about movies and books, all those family videos my father made where my mother’s voice was still there for us. And that suitcase of things that had belonged to her, her favorite clothes, her best china, her jewelry, and the books of poetry she wrote when she was young. It was all we had left of her, and I couldn’t save any of it.

And now there were strangers in our home, using our things, looking through our stuff. That was the hardest thing of all, losing our home.

My father wanted to ask them to leave our house, but it was just too dangerous. Neighbors said we should move to Kobane, my father’s hometown. We didn’t have much choice; ISIS had already declared war on us Kurds and attacked the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority.

I had to say goodbye to Farida, my 80-year-old grandmother, who had taken care of us all since our mother died. I felt that burning in my chest, as if a real fire were there, the feeling you have when your heart is hurting. I prayed on the way that we would not have to leave forever, that somehow we would come back. How do you deal with the thought of leaving your home and that you would probably never return?

I arrived in Kobane with my father, my sisters, and my brother in late August. We had a house in Kobane, where we would go to see my father’s family in the summer or for holidays and weddings.The town had already been liberated from al-Assad and was controlled by YPG, the Kurdish militia. Then, on September 13, ISIS tried to attack the city, and when they were pushed back, they blew up everything as they retreated. They targeted all the buildings that were still standing, as if all that mattered was just leaving us with as little as possible.

That attack happened in middle of the night. We were woken by my cousin shouting at the front door: “Get up and run for the border — ISIS is only an hour away!” We grabbed what we could of our clothes and things and made our way out into the street, which was filling with people panicking, children screaming and crying, their parents desperate to get them to safety, and I knew that was what my father was feeling, too, that he’d rather die than have something to happen to us.

We joined the thousands of Kobane citizens, including many elderly people, walking the difficult half-hour in the dark toward the Turkish border. The guards would not let us cross into Turkey for more than a day, but when we were allowed to pass, there were many locals who were so kind, waiting to help us with cars and vans to take people where they needed to go.

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Top left, bottom left, and bottom right: my mother, Khalida. Top right: my father, Mustafa. Top middle is me, and below, my sister Medya.

Our whole family, with my uncles and all our cousins, squeezed into a large van, and the driver tried to comfort us as he drove us about an hour to the town of Urfa. Some of us from Kobane were able to rent houses with our extended families, while others stayed in camps. In Urfa, some of my cousins worked while we were there, paid a very low wage for 10-hour shifts in clothing factories. While they sewed and packed clothes into boxes, I studied English.

Nine months later, we traveled back to Kobane to find it in ruins, destroyed by the fighting between ISIS and the Kurdish militias and U.S. coalition warplanes. Now our second home was a pile of rubble, utterly destroyed, and many old family friends had been killed.

I felt that all my memories had been stolen, hijacked by the destruction in Raqqa and then buried under the rubble in Kobane. My uncle was the first to arrive at the remains of our home. The only important thing he found that wasn’t buried under rubble was an old photograph of my mother.

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The day I started to think seriously about leaving Syria was June 25, 2015.

It was the day that ISIS massacred more than 220 civilians in Kobane and injured 300 more. I was in the city that day, with my family, hiding in the basement of my aunt’s house until the Kurdish militia moved us to a safer place half an hour from the city.

But nowhere felt safe anymore. The prospect of dying had become part of our lives over those two years, and while I had made my peace with being killed by a bomb or gunfire, I couldn’t live with the fear of being butchered with a knife or taken as a slave. I just couldn’t live with it anymore.

I also knew that I wanted to help, that I wanted to fight to make things better. My life had been on hold for two years, and my dream of studying medicine was slipping away.

I spent the next year working as a translator with some foreign journalists I had met in Kobane and criticizing ISIS on Facebook. That led to a death threat in October 2015: He told me that if I didn’t stop posting, they would kill me and seek revenge on the Kurds. It could have been just a silly social media comment, or a joke, but it didn’t feel that way. I’d received a similar message before from someone who claimed to be an ISIS sympathizer. But it was so soon after the massacre in Kobane that Dad started taking it seriously.

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Al-Rashid Park in Raqqa, before ISIS came. Photo: Ayman al-Husseen

Every refugee has a reason for leaving her country. For most of us Syrians, it was because of the oppression and brutality of Assad’s regime, which regularly imprisoned and tortured citizens who spoke out against him and which didn’t hesitate to bomb and gas his own people after the uprising. The barbarism and hatred of ISIS just sealed our fate.

Many of us had to leave behind a beloved family and our closest friends. My older sister Jinda suffered from meningitis when she was a baby, which left her with severe spinal problems and difficulty walking. She couldn’t leave, and the rest of my family stayed with her.

No words can do justice to my feelings about leaving them behind. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. My sisters are everything to me, and I looked after them after our mother died. I felt selfish leaving them and couldn’t stop crying the day I left. I was afraid I would never see them again, though I prayed I would. And that burning came back into my chest again, the feeling of my heart breaking. The next time that happened, my family would not be there to hold me.

I didn’t have much of a plan, but one morning in January 2016, I packed my backpack with what seemed like my most important belongings: two pairs of trousers, a warm coat, toothbrush and toothpaste, and pictures of my family. And my DVDs, because that didn’t seem like the kind of thing I should leave behind.

Syrian Kurd, aged 23. Aspiring journalist, documenting the odyssey of Syrian refugees. Game of Thrones fan.

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