In the Deir e-Zor countryside, controlled by the Islamic State, activists have launched an underground campaign to spread pamphlets and graffiti denouncing the Islamic State through a mix of humor and pointed criticism in an effort to reduce the group’s hold over residents’ hearts and minds.
“The point is for humor to overcome the language of war that has become a part of people’s souls,” Zeid a-Thabit, a member of pro-opposition news outlet Sound and Picture and a participant in the graffiti campaign, tells Noura al-Hourani.
It is impossible to assess the impact of the fliers, distributed in Bokamel, a small town close to the Iraqi border, as well as other towns across the Deir e-Zor countryside. But a-Thabit says that any act of resistance to the Islamic State’s brutality, however small, makes activists feel “that we have power, that we’re human beings and still alive.”
“Believe me, when I smoke a cigarette at home, I feel like I’ve trampled on [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.”
Q: A number of anti-IS slogans have appeared on the walls of Bokamel city in the form of graffiti and pamphlets. Are these the actions of individuals or an organized campaign?
It’s a campaign organized by a team of young men active on the ground, well-trained in both distributing the slogans and in protecting themselves. The campaign is ongoing, but I can’t talk specifics about the timing. We’ll choose the appropriate time and place [for further action] in order to protect our team inside Syria. There will be [anti-IS] awareness campaigns directed at all age groups.
Q: What’s the goal behind spreading these pamphlets? Where are you distributing them?
We undertook these campaigns in Deir e-Zor and Raqqa. The goal is to provide support to civilians who are afraid of Islamic State ideas spreading. Therefore we launched the poster campaign with the slogans “Dabih” and “Assad and Daesh are two sides of the same coin.”
The word “Dabih” is taken from IS’s magazine “Dabiq,” but it means, in the Syrian dialect, “stuck to.” The point is for humor to overcome the language of war that has become a part of people’s souls, which they drink in every day like water.
There were also pamphlets that connected IS to Assad, and reminded residents of the revolution with the slogan “Free Syria welcomes you,” in order to rejuvenate their souls with a sense of hope after the Islamic State had filled them with blackness.
The “Dabih” awareness-raising pamphlets are directed at all ages and intend to combat IS’s mode of thought via peaceful means, or to put a stop to its influence among residents.
The pamphlets were distributed in all the provinces in a quick campaign, out of fear of IS’s repression. Anyone caught doing it would be executed immediately.
Q: You’re running the risk of getting killed by distributing these pamphlets. How do you feel as you’re carrying out your work?
It’s true that we’re threatened with death at any moment. But there’s no room for resistance aside from spreading news and pamphlets.
Although the work is dangerous, it makes us feel powerful, and gives us hope. I no longer fear death or decapitation; what pains me more is seeing the looks in the eyes of residents and on children’s faces, staring, as the executions are carried out. I feel like they’re cutting off my head a thousand times [when I see] the eyes of those children. These scenes of execution become cemented in their minds, and become, over time, something normal, something legitimate.
Realistically speaking, these measures that we’re undertaking might not mean a thing to a lot of people, considering how basic they are. But it’s the only thing we can do in order to make us feel that we have power, that we’re human beings and still alive.
Believe me, when I smoke a cigarette at home I feel like I’ve defeated al-Adnani, trampled on al-Baghdadi. The important part is that the cigarette is something that goes against the Islamic State.
Q: What was IS’s reaction after they saw the pamphlets?
IS became hysterical after seeing the pamphlets. They set up checkpoints in the streets in order to confiscate and destroy them, and asked residents if they had seen anyone who put them up on the walls, or any civilian who took one with them. They began a campaign storming houses and arresting residents.
Q: Can we say that an internal popular movement against IS is possible?
We as a team conduct peaceful work, far from armed resistance. But military work against IS is ongoing. New weapons have slipped inside Deir e-Zor, including silencers and sniper rifles, in order to carry out assassinations and shake up stability—to carry out big operations.
Weapons are forbidden here; if a weapon is found in a house without IS knowledge, the owner is executed. Weapons are smuggled in. IS gave a two-month deadline after taking control of Deir e-Zor to hand in weapons and then broadcast those instructions through the mosques.
There are assassination operations, they’re growing increasingly common and have reached a rate of one IS member every week. [Ed.: Syria Direct sources in Deir e-Zor regularly report assassinations of Islamic State fighters, but cannot verify this claim.] This is due to the fact that we’re living in a border area and getting weapons in is relatively easy compared to the other provinces, despite the fact that IS has a presence on the other side of the border. But weapons traders don’t care who’s doing the buying.
Q: How do the poor residents of Deir e-Zor province view Islamic State rule?
Residents in general, whether poor or upper class refuse to accept the existence of the Islamic State. But all of them outwardly display support, fearing repression, because the penalty for crossing IS’s mode of thought, or casting doubt on the Caliphate is decapitation. Therefore people here display support for IS, out of fear for their necks.
But the truth is that everyone has been hurt by the Islamic State. Life no longer exists—pressures on the rich, those who own capital, are ongoing. There are many taxes under several different names—zakat, jabaya, supporting the Muslim treasury (beit mal al-Muslimin).
The poor consider the Islamic State to be the reason they are getting bombed.
Around 10 percent, only 10 percent, of people support IS because of personal interests, as their relatives are in the Islamic State, or because they benefit [materially] from their presence.