‘It’s like you have red flags all over you’: In rebel-held north, Syrians displaced by the Islamic State face discrimination, social stigma

A displacement camp near northern Aleppo’s Azaz in April. Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP.

AMMAN: Rudaina dreads checkpoints. Since fleeing her home in formerly Islamic State-held eastern Deir e-Zor province last year, the 26-year-old mother has learned exactly what question to expect when approaching security checkpoints in the rebel-controlled towns and villages of Syria’s northern Aleppo countryside.

“Are you Daesh?”

Though Rudaina was imprisoned and then driven from her home by the hardline Islamist group, sometimes known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, nowadays she routinely faces derision from rural Aleppo residents who, she says, seem to suspect her of being an IS sympathizer simply because she once lived under the group’s rule.

“They treat us as if we are dangerous, like we’re landmines,” she tells Syria Direct from rural Aleppo.

Rudaina is not alone. Syria Direct spoke with half a dozen Syrians displaced from areas once under Islamic State (IS) control who say they face social stigma and discrimination in the country’s opposition-held northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces—from civilians, but often at the hands of local armed groups too. In some cases, abuse has been enough to push displaced Syrians back to the homes they once fled.

Several sources interviewed for this report referred to the discrimination they now face as “racism,” a term that—while not totally accurate—nevertheless highlights the profound social chasms that could mar communities for years to come, even as IS is driven out of the vast majority of its former territories in Syria.

“It’s like you have red flags all over you,” says former Deir e-Zor resident, 25-year-old Abu Mujahid a-Shailawi, who fled IS to opposition-held northern Aleppo province two years ago. His hometown of Shuheil sits within a rural, eastern bend of the Euphrates River that remained under IS control for three years until US-backed, majority-Kurdish forces seized it during a major military offensive last year.

In spite of that, a-Shailawi says he still faced discrimination from ordinary people and rebel fighters who view him with suspicion as a former IS subject.

“IS committed crimes against both me and my family,” a-Shailawi tells Syria Direct from Shuheil, having returned home three months ago to find employment. He had previously fled to Turkey due to social pressures in northern Aleppo.

“[You know] you’re a victim, but [in non-IS territory] you’re treated like a criminal.”

‘I’m a guest here now’

In rural northern Aleppo province, checkpoints sit scattered across the dozens of towns and villages that look out over the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkish-backed rebel fighters guard the streets as residents pass by to go shopping, visit loved ones or edge closer to the border in the hopes of crossing into Turkey.

The heavy security presence there has been the status quo after opposition and Turkish forces routed IS fighters from the Aleppo’s northern countryside early last year. And though the area itself was under the hardline group’s rule for more than three years, people from former IS strongholds elsewhere in the country—including Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus—say they bear the brunt of abuse from local Syrians.

Displaced Syrians also described social ostracization in nearby opposition-held Idlib province, where a complex web of rebel groups—including Free Syrian Army-affiliated factions as well as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, a hardline Islamist coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate—maintain control over an estimated population of roughly three million people. One million of them are thought to be displaced Syrians from other parts of the country, including areas that used to be under IS authority.

A pro-Turkey rally in northern Aleppo’s Azaz on August 13. Photo courtesy of Azaz City Local Council.

For Deir e-Zor-born citizen journalist Saeed al-Furati, mistreatment began the day he arrived in Idlib province. He and his family fled their rural Deir e-Zor hometown in January 2015, while it was still under IS control, risking a two-week journey across some 200 kilometers of frontlines and conflict zones. Al-Furati asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons.

The family finally found themselves in Atareb, an agrarian town some 34 kilometers west of government-held Aleppo city. Al-Furati and his family had no friends or relatives in the town, and no place to stay for the night. With few other options, the group simply entered Atareb’s local market as the sun began to set, in the hope of finding some last-minute accommodation.

Al-Furati had little to lose. He approached a local resident in the market to ask if he knew of any available housing. But al-Furati’s heavy Deir e-Zor accent, markedly different from the ones ordinarily spoken in Aleppo’s countryside, immediately gave him away as someone from out of town.

“The guy looked at me, astonished,” al-Furati remembers.

“‘You’re from Deir e-Zor?’” the man asked. “‘That’s at the end of the Earth, what brought you here?’”

The man pointed al-Furati to a local real estate office, but he knew his chances of a fair deal were slim, now that it was clear his accent made him stick out.

The office’s owner took al-Furati to a nearby house that was “worn out” and “very old,” he recalls, describing just two small rooms and a kitchen for the entire family. But when the real estate agent named the monthly rent, al-Furati was shocked: 35,000 Syrian Pounds per month, around $68—far too expensive for a run-down home in rural Aleppo, the citizen journalist says.

“I just came here from very far away,” al-Furati pleaded. “I’m a guest here now.”

But the real estate agent shrugged-off al-Furati’s remarks, he says, threatening to end the offer with “signs of rage becoming clear on his face.”

It was the dead of winter, and the house was the only one available in town, al-Furati says. He grudgingly accepted.

The discrimination didn’t stop. At times, al-Furati says, it was blatant.

“Guys from [rural] Aleppo would say things like, ‘Daesh didn’t finish you off, so that we could’,” he recalls, “[and], ‘You destroyed your own homes, and now you’re coming to destroy ours’.”

Al-Furati and his family eventually decided to return to their Deir e-Zor hometown earlier this year, due to the “negative perception that we face from everybody,” he tells Syria Direct.

“We’re still coping with all the negativity.”

‘Repercussions’

Residents from former IS areas tell Syria Direct the social stigma often seems to stem from people in opposition-held territory placing some of the blame for IS crimes on the civilians that lived under the group.

“People are starting to get this perception that that those of us [from former IS territories] are the ones who embraced Daesh,” teacher Issa al-Hussein, originally from Deir e-Zor, tells Syria Direct. He also requested that his real name be withheld for security reasons.

Al-Hussein is an Arabic language teacher from Mayadeen, a sleepy Euphrates River town some 40 kilometers downstream from Deir e-Zor city. There, he admits noticing a now-widely documented reality as IS took over in 2014: a number of local clans allied themselves with the hardline Islamist group as it sought to exploit the province’s deeply tribal social fabric.

“As a son of Deir e-Zor, I don’t deny that some of the area’s residents did cooperate with Daesh, just like any other areas [where the group took control],” he tells Syria Direct from Turkey, where he now resides after fleeing northern Aleppo.

But al-Hussein maintains that he and others, who played no role in the brutal reign of IS, should be treated as innocent. “You can’t just flat-out say that everyone from the areas [that IS once controlled] embraced them,” he says.

Syria Direct spoke with Bassam al-Ahmad, a Syrian human rights activist who helped found the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) monitoring group in the early days of the war. He now lives in Turkey.

Though al-Ahmad acknowledges that some Syrians under IS did “accept” the group’s rule, he remains concerned that social ostracization of people from former IS-held territories could lead to far more sinister consequences for the thousands of innocent civilians who never accepted it. The risk, he says, is that social discrimination can cross over into flagrant rights abuses.

“This [negative] perception… can encourage some sides to carry out violations against them, such as long-term detention or isolating them to certain areas,” al-Ahmad says.  

“Yes, it’s only a social perception. But it has real repercussions.”

According to displaced Syrians, those rights violations are already happening.

Azam a-Safadi came to rural northern Aleppo with his wife, four children and parents earlier this year when pro-government forces seized his home, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus, from IS earlier this year. IS took control of the majority of the camp in April 2015.

Today, 35-year-old a-Safadi says he is singled out for interrogation at checkpoints, where guards are suspicious of him for having lived under IS.

“All you have to do is say you’re from Yarmouk camp, and they assume you’re Daesh, or that someone in your family is Daesh,” he says, using a pseudonym for fear of repercussions from opposition authorities in northern Aleppo, where he still lives. “You face accusation after accusation.”

The worst of it, a-Safadi says, comes when he’s travelling between cities in the Turkish-occupied north, along highways with a heavier security presence. “One time, they asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘south Damascus.’ ‘Where in south Damascus?’ ‘Yarmouk camp’.”

Suddenly the routine security check turned into an “interrogation,” he says.

The guard on duty “wanted to know what I do for a living [and] why my family and I came here.”

“I’ve started just telling them I’m from East Ghouta,” a-Safadi says, referring to the formerly opposition-held pocket of the eastern Damascus suburbs whose residents also evacuated north earlier this year. “It’s like [they’re thinking], ‘Daesh was in control of Yarmouk camp, so apparently everyone there is Daesh’.”

Mohammad Fares, director of legal affairs for the northern Aleppo city of al-Bab’s local council, denied any systemic discrimination by opposition authorities there.

“It’s a social phenomenon,” he told Syria Direct, noting that al-Bab was also under IS control until Turkish forces and Ankara-backed rebels seized it early last year. “If we look at [other former IS subjects] as Daesh sympathizers, it’s as if we are looking at our own people as sympathizers, too.”

Still, reported cases of discrimination wouldn’t be the first time rebel fighters in the north face charges of rights abuses. A damning report released earlier this month by Amnesty International detailed violations including imprisonment and forced detainment of ordinary people at the hands of Turkish-backed rebels in northern Aleppo, in a part of the province once controlled by majority-Kurdish forces.

The social divisions are making Rudaina, who still lives with her family in northern Aleppo, seriously consider returning home to Deir e-Zor province.

“It hurts me,” Rudaina says, describing the familiar accusations at local checkpoints. When she approached one checkpoint recently, she says she could hear a fighter laughing within earshot, “‘Look, the Daesh people are arriving.’” Another joked that they were “coming here from the Stone Age.”

But until she can find a way out, the mother of four finds some bittersweet comfort when she happens to stumble across fellow Deiris in exile—who, like her, fled IS in the hopes of safety.

“The fact that they’re suffering, but that we’re in this together—it makes me smile and cry at the same time.”

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.


Ammar Hamou

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

Basheer al-Barry

Basheer was born in Jordan but his family is from Deir e-Zor in Syria. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Philadelphia University in Jordan. Since the beginning of the war, he has worked for several relief and civil society organizations, as well as researching issues related to Syria. Through his training at Syria Direct, he seeks to develop skills in journalism and broadcast the voice of his people to the world.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.