After years of resistance against Islamic State control in their home province on the Iraqi border, Deir e-Zor’s displaced residents say they now live under threat of abduction and torture in northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces, where Ahrar a-Sham and other rebel factions eye them as IS infiltrators.
Deir e-Zor was the site of fiery local resistance against IS forces in 2014, when the group swept across eastern Syria from Mosul, then executed hundreds of local tribesmen who rebelled against their rule.
IS today controls most of Deir e-Zor, save for a few regime-held districts of the provincial capital.
Now, after fleeing IS rule, more than 200 Deir e-Zor civilians are held captive by northern Syrian militias suspicious of IS infiltrators, media activist Asa’ad Abu al-Hamza tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
Hamza, a 30-year-old from Deir e-Zor now living in northern Syria, hopes to bring the alleged abductors to justice. Earlier this month, he co-founded “Civilians, not Daesh,” a campaign that he says documents rights abuses against displaced people at the hands of rebel groups in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
“The goal of the campaign is to advocate for the displaced people and shine a light on the suffering they face after many of them have been wrongly arrested,” he says.
Deir e-Zor residents fleeing Islamic State advances. Photo courtesy of the Development Interaction Network.
Ahrar a-Sham has denied the campaign’s accusations, calling the reports “unreliable.”
“It is well known that IS has sleeper cells and groups that operate in liberated areas,” spokesman Ahmad Qurrah Ali said in a statement broadcast earlier this month via radio.
“We work to fight these cells and arrest individuals who are linked to IS. When they are transferred to a court they are investigated. If it is proven that they are a member of IS, or linked to killing, assassination or similar [crimes], they are given a fair trial,” Ali said, referring to Ahrar a-Sham’s Islamic court.
This isn’t the first time Ahrar and other opposition groups have faced accusations of rights violations. A July 2016 Amnesty International report details multiple cases of abduction, torture and summary killing at the hands of Ahrar and other militias. “Justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims remains elusive,” reads the report, “as neither the Syrian government nor armed groups have been held accountable for their crimes.”
Interviewed below, Hamza says the abductions are bitter evidence that non-IS opposition militias have turned their backs on him and other Deir e-Zor displaced living in northern Syria.
“The civilians of Deir e-Zor have paid the highest price in the fight against IS.”
Q: What are the goals of the campaign, and who do you want to target?
The “Civilians, not Daesh” campaign was launched on September 2 after an increased number of displaced people flocked to Aleppo’s northern countryside [fleeing] from IS and regime violence in Deir e-Zor.
After arriving in northern Syria, many were targeted for arrest [by some rebel factions] because they were coming from areas under IS control. Many live under the threat of murder or kidnapping at the hands of militant groups. Some of these individuals are still missing.
The goal of the campaign is to advocate for the displaced people, relieve their oppression and shine a light on the suffering they face after many of them have been wrongly arrested at the hands of armed groups. We also hope to secure the release of innocent people who were falsely accused of belonging to IS and have been wrongly arrested. [We support] holding those actually involved with [IS] accountable.
Q: What are the rebel factions targeted by the campaign, and how can it confirm its accusation charges?
The groups [targeted by the campaign] include the al-Jabha a-Shamiya and the Abu Ali Sajo Group. Of course we are not accusing the entire a-Jabha a-Shamiah, but rather just a few of its brigades. Ahrar a-Sham is the one group we can definitely confirm has in engaged [these discriminatory practices].
As for how we confirm the charges – we don’t accuse factions without solid evidence. We have documented cases of individuals arrested without evidence [that they had committed a crime] and that were later released in exchange for the payment of cash sums.
Q: How have the armed groups responded to the accusations from this campaign, and did they have any communication with you?
We have not received any official responses from the armed groups accused in these cases of kidnapping and arrest, and the majority belief is that they don’t really care about our campaign. At the end of the day, money is more important than our protest.
Ahrar a-Sham’s spokesman responded to our campaign, denying all of our accusations. We did not single out Ahrar a-Sham in our campaign, so we are surprised at the behavior of the largest militant faction in northern Syria. They responded to the campaign without attempting to investigate the cases that we reported.
Q: What are the most important cases [of rights violations] that you have documented, and how are you able to document them?
Ahrar a-Sham’s security apparatus seized a 60-year-old woman from the Deir e-Zor countryside at Bab al-Hawa [in early August 2016]. She was accused of belonging to IS and held in prison for three days. In an audio clip, she describes how Ahrar a-Sham tortured her for crimes she did not commit, then released her after three days.
The documentation process is still ongoing. Most of the cases we document come from well-trusted activists and sources in the northern Syria countryside – they meet with those recently released from rebel prisons.
The civilians of Deir e-Zor have paid the highest price in the fight against IS, particularly after they were abandoned by [opposition groups] both nearby and far away, and particularly the factions of northern Syria. At the same time, fighters from Deir e-Zor in north Syria didn’t hesitate one day to come to the assistance of our brethren in there.
Reporting by Madeline Edwards.