‘Damn these times we live in’: In a forgotten corner of Syria, Islamic State-inspired militia imposes ‘brutal’ rule

Just 8km north of the Jordanian border, in a small river valley in southwestern Daraa province known as the Yarmouk Basin, 40-year-old Abu Iskander al-Hourani, his wife and four children lived under the rule of an Islamic State affiliate.

Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW), named for the 7th-century Rashidun commander who led Muslim forces to victory in present-day southern Syria, currently holds a patch of roughly 150 sq. km nestled between the Golan Heights to the east and Jordan to the south.

On all other sides, JKW—which is ideologically similar to the Islamic State—is surrounded by the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front (SF) and their allies. For nearly a year, the latter have bombed and blockaded JKW territory—along with the thousands of civilians who live there.

Civilians are caught in the middle—already suffering along with encirclement and daily bombing, says al-Hourani, who lived under JKW rule for eight months.

Al-Hourani and his family fled their hometown of Nafa’ah alongside at least 200 people on January 10, when Daraa’s opposition council announced it would open a humanitarian corridor for Yarmouk Basin residents to leave and receive food and other aid supplies in adjacent Southern Front-held territory.

Al-Hourani’s experience offers a rare glimpse of daily life under the reported IS affiliate, with executions for charges of sorcery and other perceived violations of Islamic law. 

“One time, the JKW came to our town of Nafa’ah and set up a TV room, then gathered all of us in it," al-Hourani tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar from his temporary new home in the town of Sahm al-Jolan, 2km outside JKW territory.

“They filled the screen with films of IS fighters chopping off people’s heads in Iraq. This continued in our town until the residents became accustomed to it, and as the days passed, it began to seem normal.”

Q: Why did you leave the Yarmouk Basin? The Free Syrian Army is reportedly now preventing Yarmouk Basin evacuees from returning home. Did you think there was a risk that you wouldn’t be able to go back home so soon?

We left home because of the siege, starvation and the bombs that rained down on us every day.

When I heard about the decision to let us leave the Yarmouk Basin, I didn’t believe for a moment that they would actually allow us out.

The house, the furniture, everything that I own—I’d give anything to protect my family and my children from death. Now, after arriving here in the town of Sahm al-Jolan, outside the Yarmouk Basin, and staying here for a while, I don’t think I will return until the fighting calms down back home, or until there is reconciliation between the different armed groups.

Q: The Yarmouk Basin has been surrounded by opposition forces for the past year while clashes between JKW and opposition forces have continued on and off for months. How did the clashes and the siege impact your life in the Yarmouk Basin?

At first, we were patient, and we told ourselves this situation couldn’t last long, that it would solve itself. But the days went by, and slowly, life under siege and under the bombs became routine.

As the siege tightened its grip, everyone went hungry. We were always out of flour for baking, which forced us to eat bulgur and rice every day—even for breakfast.

The bombs burned and destroyed most of our grain and other farm crops, rendering them useless. Instead, we harvested the dead and the wounded, which made us resent the armed groups, who showed no mercy toward unarmed civilians.

Until we left, we didn’t have a single day go by without bombs hitting us.

As for medical care, we didn’t have a single medical clinic in the Yarmouk Basin. All of the military hospitals in the area only treat members of the JKW.

Armed factions are doing all the fighting, but we’ve learned that the ones hurt most by all this are the civilians.

 Displaced Yarmouk Basin residents on January 12. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Q: What kind of treatment did you receive from JKW? Can you talk more about life under the rule of an IS-affiliated militia?

JKW enforced a strict form of sharia law. They confiscated everyone’s firearms, and forced all of the women to wear the niqab and long, loose clothing. They also forced the men to grow long hair and beards, and made them wear loose trousers.

The JKW fighters carried out many executions in accordance with a principle of punishment they call “al-Qussas.”

[Ed.: The principle of punishment which al-Hourani refers to originates from a concept of equal legal retribution, found in the Quran, verse 2:178: “O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.”]

The most recent one was last Monday, against a young man accused of sorcery. The guards took him to a public square in the town of Shajarah and cut off his head with a sword, in front of a large crowd.

A JKW judge ruled that the practice of sorcery or cursing God and the Messenger were punishable by execution. Following the “al-Qussas” principle, the JKW executed more than 20 people for these crimes since the beginning of the siege about a year ago, most of them in the town of Shajarah. He was just one of three people executed last week.

JKW would also detain smokers and lock them up in cages, cut off the hands of thieves and stab Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Nusra Front (now known as Fatah a-Sham) fighters to death. They also imprison many men, whose heads they don’t cut off, whom they use in prisoner exchanges to get their fighters back.

One time, the JKW came to our town of Nafa’ah and set up a TV room, then gathered all of us in it. They filled the screen with films of IS chopping off people’s heads in Iraq. This continued in our town until the residents became accustomed to it, and as the days passed, it began to seem normal.

Last week, I was talking with my cousin, who is a lawyer and still lives in the Yarmouk Basin. He told me that the JKW issued a statement recently ordering all lawyers in the area to renounce everything they learned over the course of their law studies, and to repent, as the law they practice isn’t the true law of God.

He told me how unhappy and hateful he feels now, saying: “God damn these times we live in, under the rule of such lawless, horrible people.”

Q: Did you face any hardships or harassment at the checkpoints when you were leaving? Describe how you got out.

Around 200 people left the Yarmouk Basin during the first round of the evacuation. My family and I were among them.

Along the way, we walked for at least 10km, which exhausted us. At their checkpoint, JKW fighters searched us thoroughly, including looking through whatever possessions we carried with us. Afterwards, we crossed over to the Southern Front checkpoint.

Both sides scrutinized our personal ID cards, because they were afraid of betrayal by the other.

Q: Have you received any news regarding your home in the Yarmouk Basin or any possibility of return?

I’m constantly terrified that the Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) will loot all my furniture or destroy my house. However, I’ve realized since leaving that the intangible home that comes from being alongside my family is far more important than any material home.

I’m optimistic that I can go back home some day, and I that won’t keep on living this life of homelessness and renting.

Q: How are you able to support yourself now? Where are you living? Are your basic necessities available?

Right now, my family and I are staying in the town of Sahm al-Jolan, which is in Southern Front-controlled territory. Here, we suffer from the rising prices of rent and water, and the lack of humanitarian aid.

We are especially worried about how to get bread—the closest town with a bakery is Tseel, which is 5km away from here. My family and other people who fled the Yarmouk Basin aren’t from this area, so travelling that far just for bread is hard for us. 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.