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Life Under Islamic State: A First-Person Account

Translation- Islamic state
Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ Fadel SENNA

By: Umm Elias – Copy Rights

So many articles are published about life under the Islamic State (IS), but rarely do people who lived through that experience have the chance to write about it.

I want to tell the story of my village. It is not as well-known as places like Mosul and Raqqa but was ruled by IS for more than three years.

My village is called Koaiya, which is located in the Yarmouk Basin in south-western Syria and borders both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The people of my village – my family included – mostly depend on agriculture for a living, growing tomatoes, beans, summer squash, okra, wheat and barley. Like other areas in the region, the concept of hamula (tribes/clans) is important in my village. The biggest clans are the Sababiha and the Sharayida.

Though it now seems like a distant memory, I remember that life before the war was good. Prices were low and there was security. The electricity did not cut off and water was always available.

Things went downhill after the government lost control of the village in early 2013. Initially, the village was controlled by groups that went under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The main group was led by a local man called Muhammad Jazwan. There was also a group of rebels from the city of Nawa to the north. At first, Jazwan’s group, which eventually adopted the name al-Sabireen, had links with a faction called the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (YMB). The YMB originated from another village in the Yarmouk Basin called Jamla and was led by Muhammad Saad al-Din al-Baridi (commonly known as al-Khal).

Water and electricity cuts became increasingly frequent. Meanwhile, Jazwan was reputedly stealing the salaries of members of his group and not participating in battles. There were other claims that he was involved in smuggling antiquities and sheep.

It was at the end of 2014 that we first heard rumours of an ISIS presence in our area. Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, accused the YMB of being aligned with ISIS, and clashes broke out between the two sides. The exact story of what went on is unclear to the civilians who were not involved in the rebel groups, but al-Khal denied at the time that his group was aligned with ISIS.

Though a truce was brokered between the two sides, the battles resumed soon after, in 2015, and the YMB ended up seizing control of my village. Jazwan had broken ties with the YMB by then and rejected any allegiance with it as he saw the group as aligned with IS. I recall there were some claims that he handed over my village to Jabhat al-Nusra, though admittedly I do not remember for sure. In any event, once the YMB gained control of Koaiya in the spring of 2015, Jazwan fled, and al-Khal rejected the idea that he should be allowed to return.

While al-Khal was still alive, more open signs began to emerge of the YMB’s alignment with IS, though it was not quite the same experience as for those living in Mosul and Raqqa. For instance, wearing the niqab was not forcefully imposed on women, but the YMB did promote it by distributing niqabs and encouraging dawah (issuing an invitation to worship God). Two events further cemented the imposition of IS-style rule. The first was the assassination of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Jaouni by a Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber in November 2015. The second was the merger of the YMB with other extremist groups to form Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed (JKBW) in May 2016.

Living conditions continued to deteriorate: electricity was completely cut off and we had to rely largely on solar panels to generate electricity, which could charge a phone and provide lighting but not much else. Meanwhile, the FSA factions backed by Jordan and the West besieged the Yarmouk Basin. Civilians paid the price of the siege and not the JKBW, which had the financial support from ISIS to secure its needs and the needs of its fighters. We had no such support.

Around 82 people from my village were members of the JKBW, but I do not think that all of them were motivated to join because they believed in the ideology. Members of the Khalayafa family certainly joined because they were convinced that IS was on the correct manhaj. But most of the Ashawasha sub-clan affiliated with the Sababiha joined the group because they were hostile to Jabhat al-Nusra, which had killed one of their own men. Others joined because of the difficult living conditions in the Yarmouk Basin: the JKBW offered good salaries that could provide for wives, children and other dependents.

In general, however, the people of my village suffered from and resented the extreme restrictions that the JKBW imposed. Not all families could afford the strict dress code that the group imposed on their women. The ban on smoking also meant that cigarettes had to be smuggled into the area and were sold at inflated prices. The only thing that had remained as it was before was education: the schools were still affiliated with the Syrian government, but at the beginning of 2018 the JKBW forced them to change their affiliation and modify the curriculum. This led some people to flee the Yarmouk Basin so that their children could continue studying. Others who could not afford to rent property outside the Yarmouk Basin stayed in the area but withdrew their children from school.

For a long time, the battle lines between the JKBW and the rebels (mostly FSA) were essentially static. Many of us suspected the battles were a game and that the rebels, in particular, wanted to see the war continue indefinitely, thereby prolonging the support from their backers in Jordan and Israel. It was only in the summer of 2018 that my village was finally liberated by the Syrian army. Some rebels who had reconciled with the government also participated in the liberation operations.

Today, life is still difficult in many respects. Water is supplied from a place called Ain Dhikr to the north, but we still have no electricity and must continue to use solar panels to generate power for the time being. The JKBW’s presence also meant that some houses and other buildings were booby-trapped with explosives. Like other areas in Syria, we have been impacted by the fuel crisis caused by American sanctions.

As for social cohesion, the principle is that those who were not involved with the JKBW should be allowed to return and live and that families and clans are not held collectively responsible for the sins of their members. If a father had no involvement with the JKBW but his son did, for example, then the father should still be allowed to return and live. Those who were involved with the JKBW have either been killed or fled the area. The exact fate of some of them remains unknown.

In shorth, we have hope that life can return to what it was before the war, but we know there is a long way to go.

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