From displacement camp, former Raqqa activist reflects on ‘insanity’ of documenting IS abuses

It was a cold day as Salim a-Raqqawi stood with a crowd of onlookers at Raqqa city’s central Naeem square. He was there to watch an execution, to photograph it secretly and smuggle the images out of the city as he had done many times before.

But that day, after years of documenting bombings, killings and atrocities by the Islamic State, reality began to blur for a-Raqqawi. He grew convinced that he was the person about to be executed. Minutes that felt like months passed before a-Raqqawi came back to himself. A-Raqqawi did not photograph the execution that day.

Before the Islamic State (IS) came in and took control of his city in early 2014, a-Raqqawi was a schoolteacher, a married father of three children. But as the brutality of IS rule set in, and after IS killed four members of his family, a-Raqqawi became an activist.

For years, a-Raqqawi documented life under the Islamic State and then the violence of this year’s five-month battle to expel it from the city. He sent pictures and videos out of the city to a friend, who in turn published them on local Facebook news pages. He used a pseudonym for personal safety. Syria Direct contacted a-Raqqawi late last month through that same friend.  

An SDF fighter in Raqqa on Oct. 28. Delil Souleiman/AFP.

“I was like a madman…maybe this insanity helped me convey way was happening,” he tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou. “Whenever I sent out anything documenting the abuses of these oppressors, it was as if I won the world and everything in it.”

In mid-October, just before the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa city, a-Raqqawi finally fled his home. “It was a promise I made to myself when Daesh took control,” he says, “to be among the last people to leave Raqqa.”

Today, living in a displacement camp north of Raqqa city, a-Raqqawi is focusing on his family’s immediate needs: food, water and an eventual return home.

As for himself, “I need to find stability and peace of mind,” says a-Raqqawi. “At that point, if I can manage to pick up a camera again and keep working, I won’t hesitate.”

Q: What motivated you to stay in Raqqa for years and document events taking place there, despite the danger?

I was determined to be among the last people to leave Raqqa—it was a promise I made to myself when Daesh took full control of the city at the beginning of 2014. At that time, I said to myself: ‘I will either work to undermine Daesh through media activism or die [trying].’

[Ed.: Throughout the interview, a-Raqqawi refers to the Islamic State as Daesh, its Arabic acronym.]

Daesh killed two of my sister’s children, my brother’s son and my brother as they tried to resist [as fighters in the Free Syrian Army, when Daesh first came into the city]. At the time, I was injured, so I couldn’t participate in the resistance. So I sought revenge by documenting Daesh abuses and crimes.

I dreamt that a day would come when I could photograph the moments that those agents of darkness were killed or kicked out of my city.

Q: How did you go about documenting the situation in Raqqa?

I was like a madman. I no longer felt afraid, even though I could have died. It was like I was drugged and couldn’t feel a thing. Maybe this insanity helped me to convey what was happening, regardless of the intense bombing.

In those difficult times, I would ask myself: ‘So what if I die? Am I any better than my nieces, nephews and my brother?’

I rushed to the site of any bombing or explosion, and even when Daesh was conducting executions, I tried to be present.

I took photos and videos secretly and then uploaded them to the internet with help from a friend of mine. He would always tell me: ‘One day, we’ll all be killed because of you.’ I would smile and reply: ‘Have faith, man. God is on our side.’ We’d have a few laughs—but they were [out of fear] rather than true laughs.

My friend with the internet would ask me, ‘Salim, do you benefit from these photos and video clips?’ I responded that I did, that whenever I sent out anything documenting the the abuses of these oppressors, it was as if I won the world and everything in it.

Q: What challenges did you face while documenting rights abuses in Raqqa? Can you share one situation where you felt you were in danger?

I’ll tell you about one time at the a-Naeem intersection [in Raqqa]. Daesh was carrying out an execution. People were gathered, each one probably thinking ‘maybe one day, it’ll be me.’

While one of the false sheikhs was trying to read out the sentence—the guy barely knew how to read the statement correctly—I was standing there and then, suddenly, everything stopped.

I started to imagine that I was the one they were preparing to kill.

My legs froze and I started to shake. It was a cold day, but my body was on fire and I started to sweat. I tried to move away, to show myself that I wasn’t the one they were talking about. I thought that I moved, but I was still in the same place, terrified.

After 15 minutes of this that felt like a year, I finally understood that they wanted to execute someone else. I relaxed and was able to walk again—I checked that my legs were still there and that I could move them.

I couldn’t photograph that event. They brought the person and executed him in front of my eyes but I didn’t take any pictures. I went home, not really believing I was still alive.

Of course the image of the man they executed was enough to turn your hair grey. It was like he was dead before they even killed him. He was barely moving and, God have mercy on him, had urinated on himself. Daesh humiliated the dead, and would display them to residents in order to sow fear.

Q: What would have happened if IS caught you distributing your pictures and videos?

After all this, you want to jinx it?

Daesh executed anyone for anything, let alone for photographing. Taking pictures was the biggest crime in their eyes. I’m sure I would have died of fear before they could execute me.

Many young activists were executed for taking photographs—especially those who admitted they were affiliated with networks and organizations [Ed.: such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently]. Maybe I was less afraid because I didn’t work with any organization. I only communicated with one person and he would, in turn, publish the photos and videos on pages and in the media. I put a lot of trust in him.

Q: Now that Raqqa has been recaptured by the SDF, will you continue your citizen journalism work?

After I fled the city, I stopped working. But if the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] violate civilians’ rights, I will definitely go back to it.

I, and others like me, rose up against injustice. Documentation of abuses isn’t concerned with whether [the perpetrator] is Daesh or the SDF or anyone else.

But right now, I’m not thinking about anything other myself. I’m displaced in northern Raqqa province and my future is uncertain. I need to find stability and peace of mind. I need food and water for my wife and children, and I need to return to my home, to my neighborhood.

At that point, if I can manage to pick up a camera again and keep working, I won’t hesitate.

Q: Do you have anything you would like to say to the SDF?

My message to the SDF is that we [activists] stand with the civilians.

There is no one in Syria generally, or Raqqa specifically, who has not lost a brother, a loved one, a relative or a home.

So firstly, we thank God that we’re done with Daesh, and secondly we tell the SDF: Take a lesson from the regime and Daesh—the people of Raqqa will not be silent in the face of injustice.

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.