Life inside al-Bab: ‘The fear the Islamic State planted in our hearts prevented us from speaking out’

One cold morning in late January, Abdelsalam Abu Essam, 37, crept through the streets of Islamic State-held al-Bab city with his wife and daughter in tow. A weak early morning sun shone over the streets and bombed-out buildings in the northeast Aleppo town.

For the past three-and-a-half months, al-Bab—the last major IS-held town in northwest Syria—has been the focal point of a fierce, complex battle. On the ground, Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and Turkish special forces are advancing from the north, east and west. Pushing up from the south since mid-January, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is now within 7km of the city.

Accompanying the ground fighting are near-daily airstrikes by Turkish, Russian, regime and United States-led coalition warplanes.

At the center of the onslaught in al-Bab are thousands of civilians, who IS fighters actively work to prevent from leaving the city. Their snipers watch for fleeing residents. Their bullets, as well as landmines and IEDs planted outside the city, have reportedly killed 50 people trying to depart al-Bab since late December.

But on that morning last month, Abu Essam and his family decided to take the risk and try to get out.  

After walking—slowly, carefully—undetected through al-Bab, Abu Essam and his family made their way to the dirt road, planted with landmines, that leads east out of al-Bab. They headed north, towards Free Syrian Army (FSA) territory. It is the most well-traveled route out of the IS-held city.

Abu Essam had tried to escape al-Bab with his family before—six times—but each time Islamic State fighters caught and beat him. This time, around dawn, he met his brother, who had waited on the outskirts of al-Bab with motorcycles the entire night. The escapees and their families climbed aboard the vehicles, holding onto each other.

 Al-Bab residents near al-Bazaa, 2.5km east of the city, on January 18. Photo courtesy of Abdelsalam Abu Essam.

Once out of IS territory, Abu Essam took a few pictures. Some 30,000 residents of al-Bab have made journeys such as Abu Essam’s since late December 2016, according to the United Nations.

While he and most of his relatives are now in the FSA-held Aleppo countryside, Abu Essam’s mother, father and brother are still inside al-Bab. Concerned for their safety, he agreed to be referred to by a nickname.

“I felt reborn,” Abu Essam tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from his new home in a tent roughly 30km northwest of his IS-held hometown.

“I am living in a camp, but for me it is far preferable to staying under IS control and dying of fear.”

Q: How are living conditions inside al-Bab these days?

It is terrible. Al-Bab is effectively surrounded. No food comes in, and fuel is not available. It is extremely difficult to get by, or even find a loaf of bread for the children.

Sugar and fertilizer are forbidden because IS is afraid they could be used [by civilians] to make explosives.

In al-Bab, my children would gather up food scraps to get us by. I couldn’t leave the house or work. Life has come to a standstill for men in the city. There is no work, and they are afraid of IS.

Worst of all is the medical situation. There are no clinics, hospitals or doctors to treat civilians. What medical services exist are only provided to IS personnel and their families.

Many people with kidney failure and cancer have died without treatment. If someone gets sick, they know they’ll probably die without seeing a doctor.

Q: How does the Islamic State treat people?

IS has terrorized every person in al-Bab. We cannot speak a word, even to our own shadow, because it could cost us our lives.

IS [enforces its rules] at every level. For example, my mother is 57 years old. One day, she went out to clean in front of our house. An IS member saw her [outside of the house without a male guardian], so they whipped my 65-year-old father 100 times. He was punished because she is his wife.

Another woman from our neighborhood stepped outside to call her young daughters to come back to the house, and her husband got 100 lashes as well.

Women are also married off to IS personnel against their will and that of their families, without being asked their opinion.

People have stopped going to the mosque to pray because of IS criticism [of their stance, dress and way of praying]. IS also harasses people to compel young men to join them.

These are just a few examples. Everything is forbidden, everything is an abomination. IS personnel are the ones to decide what is forbidden, with no relation to Islam.

 Photo courtesy of Abdelsalam Abu Essam.  (taken after they got out)

Q: Have civilians in al-Bab resisted or gone against IS orders, secretly or openly? If so, what was the Islamic State’s response?

Many residents of al-Bab used to have thoughts of rebellion. But the fear that IS planted in our hearts prevented us from speaking out because we knew that any misstep, no matter how small, could cost us our lives. Our first mistake would be our last.

The fear and horror in our hearts stops us from even thinking against IS. All we think about is securing a loaf of bread and our children’s basic needs.

Q: Are the IS fighters in al-Bab from the city, or other areas and towns? Before you left, did you notice any change in interactions with them?

Some young guys from al-Bab joined IS because they needed money. They have weak minds. [Most] IS fighters are from other countries: France, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere.

As for a change, IS has intensified [restrictions] on civilians more and more. IS members are afraid of smartphones, which are completely forbidden. If they find out that somebody has one, they cut off his head. Only small cell phones without internet are allowed. They are afraid of [civilian] communication with the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] or Euphrates Shield, to give away IS positions so they can be bombed.

Q: How did you feel when you left al-Bab?

I was filled with joy when I got out. I felt reborn. I was free from fear and the Islamic State’s terrorism of me and the people of al-Bab, in our own city

I was sad, too, for my city, where I was born and lived. But even though I knew that after I left IS would seize my home and burn my belongings, all my possessions are not worth one more minute of fear in my own house, in my own city.

Q: Can you describe your journey out of al-Bab?

I left on a motorcycle, along with my wife and daughter. My relatives were on three other motorcycles. We left on a dirt road filled with mines. Of course, this was our seventh attempt, after six failed ones, when IS caught us.

[Ed.: On previous attempts, Abdelsalam says he was whipped as punishment.]

Most people try to escape in the hours before dawn. I tried leaving at that time, but it didn’t work out. The last time, I waited until 9-10am and, by some miracle, it worked.

We didn’t have a people-smuggler with us. It is very hard to find one, because IS has executed people accused of smuggling others out. Also, even if you can find somebody, it costs 100 dollars per person.

We took the most well-known route out, that dirt road running east from al-Bab to the town of Bazaa, then north towards FSA positions.

Now I am in Marj Dabiq [roughly 30km northwest of al-Bab]. I am living in a camp, but for me it is far preferable to staying under IS control and dying of fear.

Q: Before you left, how was the situation inside the city, with the latest bombings?

The city was being bombed from the air and the ground, by regime and [US-led] coalition planes. [Ed.: Turkish and Russian planes have also struck the city in recent weeks.]

IS personnel placed their headquarters in residential buildings. They have not established any positions outside the city or on its outskirts for fear of bombings.

It is terrible inside the city. There are corpses lying on the ground, and nobody can approach them, not even if it is his son.

IS uses people as human shields, hiding behind them without offering protection. They gather people together with the goal of increasing the number of civilian casualties.

Q: Since you are from an IS area, have you faced problems with the FSA?

Since I came to Marj Dabiq, the FSA has been providing security. There was intense inspection of the vehicles that carried us here. When I arrived, one of my friends came and met me. When the FSA found out I knew somebody from here, and I gave his name, he vouched for me.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

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.