When the Assad regime was forced from the northeastern city of Raqqa in the summer of 2013, Souad Nofal was elated. A schoolteacher in the town, she belonged to a revolutionary group that used non-violent tactics to instigate civil unrest. ‘We rushed into the street, crying and singing,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted to live as they do in the countries we see on the TV – for a person to say whatever they want and not be afraid.’ The elation was short lived. The Islamist group that had just started to call itself ISIS quickly became a major presence in the city. Many of Raqqa’s revolutionaries left, and those that remained were intimidated into silence. But as Nofal saw the revolution’s promise betrayed, she decided to confront the Islamists.
‘ISIS put a gun to my head, but I laughed at them’
Every day for more than two months she stood alone outside ISIS headquarters in Raqqa carrying a hand-drawn placard. Each criticized a different aspect of the group’s ideology or behaviour. ‘Don’t talk so much about your religion,’ said one, ‘show us your religion through decency, compassion, and good deeds.’ Another read ‘Our revolution was started by honourable people, and is being stolen by thieves.’ The simplest message of all was ‘ISIS = Assad’.
It was an astonishingly brave thing to do. ‘They put AK47s to my head, but I laughed at them’, says Nofal. ‘I could feel their fear, fear of the words I wrote on my posters.’
In early October 2013, Nofal used her placard to condemn the burning of two Christian churches in Raqqa. ISIS militants ripped the paper to shreds and fired shots at Nofal and her sister as they ran down the street. Days later, Nofal escaped across the border into Turkey. She is now a refugee in Holland.
Abu Mohammed*: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently
In 2013, a young media activist saw a car drive through the streets of Raqqa with the words ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ painted on the side. Abu Mohammed knew nothing about the men inside, but he remembers the fear. ‘I said to myself, “May God protect us from those people”.’
By 2014 those fighters, now calling themselves ISIS, had taken over Raqqa, and Abu Mohammed began to see public executions in the streets. In April that year, together with five other friends, he started a website to document and expose the brutality of the jihadists now lording it over his hometown. About a month after the launch, ISIS captured and killed one of the project’s six founders.The site – Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently – now has 25 contributors and has become a key source of information for journalists and analysts all over the world. The people who run it are all between 20 and 30 years old. Four are women. Most live with their parents, who know nothing about their children’s activism. They meet only online and hide their identities even from each other, to prevent the possibility that any one of them, if tortured by ISIS, might reveal the names of the others.
Outwardly, Abu Mohammed has adopted the attitudes of Raqqa’s new rulers. ‘I did change my look – I grew a beard, and I try to wear their style of clothes.’ But from the anonymity of his laptop, he continues to fight for the ideas that inspired him to revolt against Assad in 2011: ‘I wanted to see Syria as a civil state… as a democratic country where people live under the rule of law.’
As well as being a rejection of all that ISIS stands for, the website stands as a reminder of those values. ‘There is a civil side to this country,’ he says. ‘Syrians demonstrated for freedom and dignity, not for ISIS or the regime.’
* Not the activist’s real name.
Ayham Ahmed: The piano man of Yarmouk
In April 2015, Islamist militants poured petrol onto a brightly painted piano and set the instrument on fire.
The piano belonged to Ayham Ahmed, a 28-year-old musician born in Yarmouk, a densely populated neighbourhood of southern Damascus that had grown out of a Palestinian refugee camp set up in the 1950s.
For the past three years, Yarmouk has been under siege. Between August and December 2013, nothing got in or out. On top of those killed by shells or snipers, more than 100 people died of starvation and disease.
At the beginning of the siege, Ahmed decided ‘to play my piano in the streets and alleyways of the camp that I love.’ He built a wheeled platform to help move the battered instrument around Yarmouk, playing songs for children traumatized by fighting. ‘I sing the different colours of suffering of the people in the camp,’ he says. ‘And I teach music to kids, because it is the only thing that can change their state of mind.’
Ayham began playing at the age of six, and went on to study with a series of distinguished Syrian and Russian teachers at the Arab Institute of Music in Damascus. His first love is Russian composer Rachmaninov.
Since the Islamists took control of the camp in April, Ayham’s efforts to alleviate the agony of Yarmouk have placed his own life in danger. ‘Music is among the things that are prohibited by the hardline Islamists,’ he says. Ayham now has two children of his own, Ahmed and Kenan, both born under siege. He is desperate to bring them to safety.
‘I am sad that my piano has been burned,’ he says, ‘but I am more sad about the lack of help from a limp world that is looking at our suffering without lifting a finger to ease the pain… Still, I am going to sing for love and peace, even if no one helps us.’
Dr Majed Abu Ali: The doctor who treated victims of a chemical attack
Majed’s first child was born in the spring of 2013, towards the end of what he now calls the golden days of the revolution. The regime had been pushed from Eastern Ghouta in November the previous year, and people were convinced that Syria was close to freedom. ‘We were excited, and wanted to build our country,’ he remembers. ‘We began to form our own local councils, our own hospitals, our own bakeries and schools.’ The regime, though, had other plans. The region’s water and electricity were cut off. No food was allowed in. Day after day, the Syrian army launched air strikes against a civilian population. ‘The regime,’ says Majed, ‘was targeting the hospitals.’
Before the war he had been a dentist. Now, he was working as a volunteer medic and using his contacts to keep Ghouta’s field hospitals supplied. The medical teams were well organized – but nothing could have prepared them for what was coming.
On 21 August 2013, a densely populated neighbourhood was hit with rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Majed was at his hospital when the bodies started to come in. ‘Kids and women arrived in their sleeping clothes. We could not believe they were dead. We’re used to dealing with blood, but there was no blood. They were sleeping.’ It was the worst chemical attack since the Iran-Iraq war. Majed estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed that night.
In March 2014, Majed’s wife and son left for Turkey. ‘Just one week after they left, my own house was targeted and my son’s bed was destroyed.’ A month later, Majed joined his family as a refugee. ‘I didn’t want to leave. I want to help my people, my neighbours, my country. But I have a family too, and I want them to live.
This feature was published in the September 2015 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.