Behind the Islamic State's Raqqa frontlines: ‘People are just waiting for their turn to die’

In an Islamic State-occupied neighborhood of Raqqa city, local journalist Zaid a-Thabit uses a small, improvised satellite dish to connect to the internet, log onto Facebook and share news updates from his hometown.

“The Islamic State forbids this kind of equipment,” a-Thabit tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani. “If they find it, it will cost me my life.”

But recently, the Islamic State (IS) has been too preoccupied with fighting to police local residents as they usually do, says a-Thabit.

Two months ago, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched the final phase of their campaign to drive the Islamic State from its de facto Syrian capital. Bolstered by air support from the US-led coalition against IS, the SDF has taken control of more than 55 percent of the city.

As coalition warplanes strike targets inside the city, a-Thabit describes “hellish” conditions: an “urban street fight where IS relies on snipers and IEDs” to stave off SDF advances.

“It’s clear that the Islamic State has no intention of giving up easily,” he says.

Behind the frontlines, residents are resigned to the daily urban warfare outside their doorsteps, says a second Raqqan. Just 800 meters from the frontlines, Abu Muhammad sits alone at home.

“People are just waiting for their turn to die,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani. “There’s nothing to do except to watch the bombs fall and to see who’s been killed.”

“Things are desperate,” Abu Muhammad says. “The injured don't wait for help to come; they wait to die.”

Seif al-Dawleh street in eastern Raqqa city on Friday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Zaid a-Thabit is the pseudonym of a Syrian journalist and Raqqa native in his mid-thirties currently residing in an IS-controlled, besieged neighborhood.

Q: In Islamic State territory working as a journalist is punishable by death—so how can you talk to media outlets? How are you even speaking with me right now?

I use satellite internet for my work. It’s just a small satellite dish and a receiver. Of course, IS forbids this kind of equipment. If they find it, it will cost me my life. I always hide it, and I can only use it during certain times.

Currently, IS is busy fighting, so there are no longer cars driving around checking for communication devices. This lets me contact the outside world more as of late.

Q: How is it possible to conduct accurate and timely journalism inside Raqqa given the incredibly violent nature of the ongoing urban warfare?

With the intensity of the bombings and the high number of massacres, the situation has become even harder with regard to documenting [bombings]. We’ve asked people to put a piece of paper in their pockets with their name and addresses written on them so we can know who they are after a bombing.

This is the tragedy that we’ve come to. The reporters in the area are counting [the dead] on their fingers, working with [the simplest of means] in the most dangerous of circumstances.

For this reason, news on the bombings and their victims comes after a day or two, maybe more. As far the pictures are concerned it is too dangerous to get pictures in IS-areas.

Q: How do you convey the situation in Raqqa to the outside world?

It’s beyond catastrophic, I can’t describe the situation as anything besides hellish. People are just waiting for their turn to die.

Here, you find death of all types. From bombs, from hunger, from thirst—all are trapped [in Raqqa] without an escape. People have fallen into such despair that they are convinced they will never leave.

In the beginning, there were people who found ways to survive and to escape the city. Today, after the daily massacres that people are witnessing and the siege forced upon them, they live with total despair in their hearts. Most of them are no longer interested in leaving—everyone is just waiting to die.

The city has no water and no communications [telephone, internet, etc]. Everyone is a prisoner in their own home; they never leave except to search for food that can stave off death.

When people hear bombs, they leave their homes—not to recover the dead, but to search for food.

Q: What’s the current situation in the city? How many IS members are in the battle by your estimation?

The battle is an urban street fight where IS relies on snipers and traps [IEDs]. From what I’ve been able to gather, Islamic State numbers do not exceed 400 fighters.

The SDF is slowly advancing with air support from the coalition.

It’s clear that IS has no intention of giving up easily.

***

Abu Muhammad is a 45-year-old resident of Raqqa and father of three.

Q: Describe the atmosphere inside Raqqa. Are civilians hoping that the SDF takes control over the city?

I am just one of many people who's felt like they've gone out of their minds. I can't take it anymore. There are times where I feel like I'm living a dream, just waiting to be woken up. I used to think that I was strong, but now I have quite literally collapsed. I spend the majority of my day crying, not even making a sound.

Look, people here don't care who takes over control. All they want is for this situation to be done and over with. Most people would prefer to die rather than to continue living like this.

Q: Are there still medical centers left? What happens when somebody is injured?

No, there aren't any. All that's left is one single hospital that's half-destroyed. And they don't even have ambulances or the ability to do emergency care because the Islamic State monopolizes all the medical supplies for their own members.

Things are desperate. The injured don't wait for help to come; they wait to die.

Q: Explain the situation to me. How do you feed yourself? What is daily life like in Raqqa?

Everyone is locked away in their homes, and leaving is very dangerous with IS snipers [around]—you don’t know what they’ll shoot at.

There’s nothing to gain from leaving the house; there’s nothing to do except to watch the bombs fall and to see who’s been killed and who’s injured.

You can’t keep in touch with people here since the telephones are cut off.

Q: Do you live alone? Where is your family?

I have three kids and my wife. I sent them to Deir e-Zor a while ago with another displaced family that had a car. I stayed alone here, since IS was at the time only allowing women and children to leave.

Q: Since leaving is dangerous and there’s no work, how are you able to feed yourself and survive?

In some neighborhoods there are shops that sell shairia [noodles], maybe burghul, bread and expired canned food. The people who live on the same street as the shop can go there, but for those who are far away, leaving the house is very dangerous, and even if you get to the store you might not find anything to eat.

Virtually no one has any food stored up, since before the siege food was very expensive. For the people who did stockpile food it’s mostly non-perishable items since there’s no electricity to preserve it.

For me, if God weren’t so kind, if my neighbor didn’t leave two weeks ago and leave his olives, bread and a little bit of burghul behind, I’d have died from hunger.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.