April 27, 2014
In March of last year, Syrian rebel fighters headed by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra claimed control of the northern Syria city of a-Raqqa, making it the first—and, to this point, only—provincial capital to come under rebel control.
In the year since then, citizens of a-Raqqa have faced an increasingly puritanical brand of Islamic governance, first under Jabhat a-Nusra and, more recently, under the more extremist al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS), which claimed full control of the city after intense fighting with other rebel groups in January of this year.
ISIS then issued a series of four decrees demanding adherence to strict Islamic law in a-Raqqa. The group called for all women to don the full-face niqab while in public, banned music, forbade the smoking of cigarettes and water pipes and demanded that shop owners close their storefronts beginning ten minutes before prayer time.
Just over a month later, ISIS announced that a-Raqqa’s Christian residents pay a tax in order to secure “protected status” and continue practicing their religion in private only.
“Problems emerged when ISIS issued its four laws, which some people refused to abide by,” says Abu al-Bara’a al-Furati, a 22-year-old student and member of the a-Raqqa Media Center. Nonetheless, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad al-Haj Ali that “people have adjusted to the situation” and that ISIS has improved services, with water, electricity and bread now readily available.
Q: How do people coexist with ISIS? Are there any problems?
Problems emerged when the Islamic State issued its four laws, which some people refused to abide by. Some were punished, and this caused hostility. Now people have adjusted to the situation, partly because they have seen legitimate justifications for the decisions and partly because they fear being punished by ISIS.
Syrian girls memorize the Quran in ISIS-led lessons on Shari'a. Photo courtesy of Raqqa98.
Q: How has daily life been in a-Raqqa recently?
Daily life in the city is good. I’ll start with the most important thing for us, which is bread—there is a surplus of bread available in the city, more than bakeries need. The Islamic State opened flour mills in the al-Salhabiyah, Salouk and Tel Abyad neighborhoods of western a-Raqqa province, and plan to open another one soon, whereas under regime control there was only one mill. The electricity situation is acceptable, without more than six hours of blackouts a day. The water situation is very good.
Q: What about the violence—are there any clashes in the streets or near residential areas?
There are no clashes at all. The clashes happened when there were problems between the Islamic State and other jihadist battalions—at that time spread throughout the streets and the city being an arena for guerilla warfare. But now only one faction controls the city, and it’s ISIS.
Q: Are there work opportunities available for people?
There is work, but work opportunities are limited because of all the displaced people that the city is hosting, especially from Aleppo province. The city has become full of displaced people. Job opportunities are various; some people have money so they open their own businesses, but most people work as traveling venders.
Q: What about the education in schools and universities?
The schools are working well, but the weekend has changed. It used to be Friday and Saturday, but now it’s Thursday and Friday in order to be different from Jews and the West.
Q: What’s the situation for media organizations in a-Raqqa?
There is media blackout in a-Raqqa province; most channels refused to show events from a-Raqqa because ISIS controls it. The State gave us conditions for working in a-Raqqa, including not photographing their bases or fighters.