Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Spoils for the Rulers, Terror for the Ruled

The Washington Post, 01.10.2015
Kevin Sullivan


The white vans come out at dinnertime, bringing hot meals to unmarried Islamic State fighters in the city of Hit in western Iraq.

A team of foreign women, who moved from Europe and throughout the Arab world to join the Islamic State, work in communal kitchens to cook the fighters’ dinners, which are delivered to homes confiscated from people who fled or were killed, according to the city’s former mayor.

The Islamic State has drawn tens of thousands of people from around the world by promising paradise in the Muslim homeland it has established on conquered territory in Syria and Iraq.

But in reality, the militants have created a brutal, two-tiered society, where daily life is starkly different for the occupiers and the occupied, according to interviews with more than three dozen people who are now living in, or have recently fled, the Islamic State.

Foreign fighters and their families are provided free housing, medical care, religious education and even a sort of militant meals-on-wheels service, according to those interviewed. The militants are paid salaries raised largely from taxes and fees levied on the millions of people they control, in an arc of land as big as the United Kingdom.

Those whose cities and towns are held by the Islamic State said they face not only the casual savagery of militants who behead their enemies and make sex slaves out of some minority women but also severe shortages of the basics of daily life.

Many residents have electricity for only an hour or two a day, and some homes go days without running water. Jobs are scarce, so many people can’t afford food prices that have tripled or more. Medical care is poor, most schools are closed, and bans on most travel outside the Islamic State are enforced at gunpoint.

Over the past two years, the militants have produced a torrent of startlingly sophisticated online propaganda that has helped persuade at least 20,000 foreign fighters, many with families, to come from as far away as Australia. The campaign, largely distributed on YouTube and social media, depicts a place filled with Ferris wheels and cotton candy, where local families cheerfully mingle with heavily armed foreigners.

But local people interviewed said their daily lives are filled with fear and deprivation in the Islamic State “caliphate,” governed by the militants’ extreme version of Islamic sharia law.

“We went back to the Stone Age,” said Mohammad Ahmed, 43, a former Arab League worker from Deir al-Zour, a town near Raqqa, the militants’ self-proclaimed capital in northern Syria.

“We used to have a beautiful house with marble and ceramic floors,” said Ahmed, who fled his home in June and now lives alongside 20,000 other Syrians in Jordan’s Azraq refu­gee camp. “All our lives, we had everything we needed. Then, when they came, we were cooking over a fire outside and washing our clothes in a bucket.”

Several of those interviewed said the Islamic State was actually less corrupt and provided more efficient government services, such as road construction and trash collection, than the previous Syrian and Iraqi governments. In Iraq, some said, the Sunni Islamic State militants treated them better than the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. But none of those interviewed said they supported the militants, and all said efficient government did not excuse the group’s brutal and fanatical behavior.

“We hate them,” said Hikmat al-Gaoud, 41, the former mayor of Hit, who fled in April and now divides his time between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan.

The Islamic State came to power in the wake of years of fighting in Syria and Iraq that already had shattered many public institutions. But people interviewed said the Islamic State had made the damage worse, in ways that could be felt for decades to come — reversing gains in public education, ruining the medical infrastructure, establishing a justice system based on terror, and exposing a generation of children to gruesome and psychologically devastating violence.

For women, living in the Islamic State homeland often means being subjected to a virtual assembly-line system for providing brides to fighters, or sometimes being abducted and forced into unwanted marriages.

Many who were interviewed gave only their first name or declined to be identified at all, for their own safety and the security of their family members still living under Islamic State control. They were interviewed via Skype or telephone calls from Syria and Iraq, or in person in Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

Those who spoke from inside areas controlled by the Islamic State did so at great peril, saying the militants closely monitor Internet access. They agreed to speak so that they could tell their story of life inside the Islamic State caliphate.


Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Justice

Militant occupiers use beheadings and horror to control local people.

Nearly everyone interviewed said they had witnessed a beheading or another savage punishment. It is virtually impossible to independently verify these accounts, just as it is impossible to verify the claims in much of the propaganda material put out by the Islamic State. The militants almost never allow journalists or other observers inside their territory, and they have posted video of the beheadings of several they have captured.

The interviews, conducted over several months, were arranged largely at random or through long-established contacts in the region. Although several activists were among those interviewed, The Washington Post did not rely on activist groups to provide interview subjects. At the Azraq camp, Post reporters reviewed records of arrivals and sought out those who had come recently from militant-controlled areas. Many of the interviews lasted two hours or longer.

The militants control small farming communities and large urban areas, including Mosul, an Iraqi city with a population of more than 1 million people. The Islamic State’s policies differ somewhat in each area, so there is no single, uniform way of life; but in the interviews, consistent themes emerged about women, health, education, justice and the economy in the Islamic State.

Women must be fully veiled and can be whipped for leaving the house without a male-relative escort. Many simply stay at home for fear of being picked up on the street and forced to marry a foreign fighter.

Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Women

A life of forced marriages, young widows, abductions and fear.

Hospitals are usually reserved for foreign fighters and are staffed by doctors who have come from as far as Britain and Malaysia. Local people are forced to seek care in ill-equipped clinics, which have expired medications and poorly trained staff.

In some places, the Islamic State has shut down cellphone service and Internet access. Where it still exists, the militants try to control it closely. They have set up Internet cafes that have become centers for propaganda, where recruiters encourage young people around the world to leave their homes and come to the Islamic State. They have persuaded about 200 Americans — some still in their teens — in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and other U.S. cities to try to come to Syria. Most were arrested before reaching their destination, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.

Except for religious schools for the children of foreign fighters, schools are generally closed. Militants have confiscated college diplomas and burned them publicly.


Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Education

Militants have closed most schools, banned “worthless” secular education and burned college diplomas.

“Life under Daesh is a nightmare each day,” said a female math teacher who lives in Mosul, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State.

“We have an unknown future,” she said, asking that her name not be used. “Maybe Daesh will kill us or maybe we will die in the war, or maybe after. What we are going through right now is a slow death.”

The militants have established checkpoints to prevent people from fleeing. But those interviewed said a growing network of smugglers is helping people get away, and they are entering Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and non-militant-controlled areas of Iraq in increasing numbers. U.N. officials said that 60 percent of refugees who have crossed the Syria-Jordan border recently were escaping areas controlled by the militants.

The Islamic State’s propaganda portrays the militants as liberators; one recent video showed armed fighters delivering sweets to a home for the elderly. But according to those interviewed, the majority of residents view the militants as a merciless occupying force, and they stay away from them as much as possible.

“Even if we see them in the streets or in the shops, there is no mingling,” said an activist who calls himself Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a native of Raqqa who runs a social media site called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

People in Raqqa, he said, “feel like strangers in their own city.”


Why people join and stay

The Islamic State has had some success recruiting local people. Those interviewed said many of their friends and neighbors in Syria and Iraq have chosen to join the Islamic State, becoming fighters, teachers or workers in their government offices.

Some do so because they believe in the militants’ goal of uniting the world under their extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

But most of the people who work for the Islamic State do so out of economic desperation, according to those interviewed. In places where the cost of food has skyrocketed and where many people are living on little more than bread and rice, some men have concluded that becoming an Islamic State warrior is the only way to provide for their family.


Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Economy

The militants’ government is sometimes efficient, but locals face severe shortages of daily necessities.

“There is no work, so you have to join them in order to live,” said Yassin al-Jassem, 52, who fled his home near Raqqa in June. “So many local people have joined them. They were pushed into Daesh by hunger.”

Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, said that although foreign fighters have given the Islamic State a boost, “in the long term, they will turn out to be a burden.” He said that local tribes rose up against al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s partly because that group was perceived as a foreign organization. He said people now under Islamic State control could do the same — especially in Iraq.

But those interviewed who had lived under the Islamic State said it has gone to great lengths to suppress any potential uprisings, killing anyone suspected of disloyalty.

Faten Humayda, 70, a grandmother who fled her town near Raqqa in May and now lives in the Azraq camp, said the violence increases local anger at the militants, but it also creates suspicion among local people. It is harder for any kind of resistance movement to form when people think their friends and neighbors might be informants for the militants.

“They have turned us against each other,” she said.

Ahmed, who fled his town near Raqqa in June, said some of the Arab fighters would try to mix with the local population, but the Europeans and other non-Arabs never did. He said that although the Islamic State militants claimed they were there to create a better life for Muslims, they seemed mainly focused on battles with other rebel groups and government forces.

“They were always very aggressive, and they seemed angry,” he said. “They are there to fight, not to govern.”

Interviewed in his baking-hot metal hut in the Azraq camp, Jassem recalled that while he was living under Islamic State control, his 2-year-old grandson developed a brain tumor. Doctors wanted $800 to remove it.

Jassem, a farm hand, hadn’t worked since Islamic State militants took over his home town. He was desperate, so in late May he went to the militants to beg for his grandson’s life, and they offered him a choice.

“They said to me, ‘If you give us your son to fight with us, we will pay for your grandson’s treatment,’ ” he said.

The idea of one of his sons becoming an Islamic State fighter turned his stomach, and the thought of losing his grandson broke his heart. So Jassem took his family and escaped in the back of a smuggler’s truck. He said his son is now asking Jordanian authorities for medical help for the little boy.

“I am never going back to Syria,” Jassem said, looking out from his 12-by-18-foot hut at the bleak expanse of empty Jordan desert. “It’s not my Syria anymore.”

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