“Absolute terror dominates Mayadin,” says Abu Bassam, the pseudonym of a Syrian who fled the desert town 45km southwest of Deir e-Zor city last week.
On April 10, Abu Bassam fled Mayadin under the pretext of seeking urgent treatment through forged medical records.
“I was allowed to leave the city given my supposedly urgent need for intensive care,” he says, adding that the medical situation in Mayadin is virtually non-existent.
For nearly two years, Abu Bassam worked as a citizen journalist to document life in Mayadin under the Islamic State, including a strict culture of religious conformity, mass arrests and obligatory attendance at public executions.
“Not a single person in the city stood up to IS or even dared to say no,” Abu Bassam tells Syria Direct’s Omaima al-Qasem.
“That daily fear was so controlling.”
Q: Where were you staying in Deir e-Zor? When did you leave?
I was staying in the Deir e-Zor countryside city of Mayadin. I left on April 10, 2016.
Q: How were you able to leave given IS’s intense siege of the city?
I left with the help of a friend of mine. After forging medical records, I was allowed to leave the city given my supposedly urgent need for intensive care. The medical situation in Mayadin is virtually non-existent. When I was leaving, I wiped my cellphone clean, making sure not to leave behind any proof of my previous media work out of fear that my house would be raided before I left the city.
The Islamic State travel document permitting Abu Bassam’s five-day medical leave.
Q: Describe for us life in the IS-controlled city.
Life in the city is terrible, and the present reality is incredibly difficult. Goods are expensive, particularly after the exchange rate for the Syrian pound rose. IS also bans internet from being used in homes. They only permit usage in certain designated cafes that they have authorized so as to impose their control and hide their crimes from reaching the world.
Everyone is threatened with arrest—or worse—even women. Every day IS basically arrests a new group of young men on various charges. The most common argument is that these men are offenders of Islamic law, whether that means that they are cutting their beards, lengthening their thawb [Ed.: Arab garment typically worn to mid-calf length by Salafis], or not praying at the appropriate time at the mosque.
Not a single person in the city stood up to IS or even dared to say no. That daily fear was so controlling. Members of IS would force us to attend public executions. The goal was to teach us a lesson: Whomever crossed IS, their fate would be the same as those before them.
Q: In your opinion, what explains this severity of IS treatment against the people?
They want to enslave us. Fear is one driver of obedience. About a month before I left Mayadin, there was a group of unknown young men that killed members of IS. I witnessed first-hand the fallout, which entailed a campaign of arrests of previous members of the Free Syrian Army, the spread of new checkpoints and a surge in inspections and home raids in search of weapons. Those who were discovered to have weapons were killed. IS even brought in heavy equipment to dig holes in agricultural areas to search for weapons. Absolute terror dominated Mayadin.
Q: Could you describe what it was like moving about in the city?
During the day, movement was practically normal so long as we observed IS guidelines with regard to appropriate attire. For women, complying with sharia attire meant having to wear a khimar and an abaya [Ed.: The two articles consist of a head-to-toe garment as well as a conservative veil]. If they were not properly clothed, women could face a fine between SP400 and SP500 or else their male guardians would have to flog them. A group of women affiliated with IS would oversee this flogging.
After 8pm it was forbidden for any person to move about in the city.
Q: What difficulties did you face as an activist?
There were really two main difficulties. On one hand, mobility was particularly challenging. On the other, it was hard to communicate online. Furthermore, there was constant fear of IS raids, especially on internet cafes. The danger of this work is that IS deemed it to be worthy of the haddpunishment [Ed.: In accordance with Islamic law, certain crimes, considered to be transgressions against the rights of God, receive fixed punishments]. If caught in this line of work, one could be charged for spying for foreign governments or for provocation against IS.
I was arrested for a month. Those days were the hardest of my life, after which I decided to leave the city no matter the price.
Q: How were you able to work in a city that was so tightly controlled by IS? What did your activism work specifically entail?
I worked to document and uncover the truth behind IS’s criminal activities. Of course, there were people in other places who helped me disseminate these photos and stories, people who helped me upload everything to somebody abroad who would publish it all.
Q: Why were you arrested?
IS began arresting members of the Free Syrian Army. I used to be a member before IS controlled Mayadin, and so I was arrested. IS prisons are more dangerous than regime prisons. I stayed in solitary confinement for 25 days in a room that was no bigger than one meter by one meter. It was a tomb. I was also blindfolded for a long time simply because I was once a member of the Free Syrian Army, which IS considers to be an apostate organization.
Q: How were you able to get out of prison after just one month?
I received a pardon from al-Baghdadi after which I was blindfolded, my hands tied, and I was put in a car. I have no clue of the whereabouts of that prison. After about 15 minutes, I was just dropped in the street and my captivity finally ended.