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Under calm exterior, horror reigns in IS-controlled Raqqa

When the al-Qaeda splinter group formerly known as ISIS declared itself the Islamic caliphate near the end of June, it took Raqqa as it capital. Since then, residents of the Syrian city have been subjected to the Islamic State’s (IS) strict interpretation of Sharia law, and severed heads rolling in the street are not an uncommon sight. Activists in the city regretfully recall how they turned a blind eye to the tactics the IS used to eventually take power in Raqqa: bombing other party’s headquarters, making repeated arrests, and smuggling oil to sell. Through these methods, the IS rose from one of many competing factions to absolute control of the city.

By Tareq al-Abd, translated by Sami-Joe Abboud

8/11/2014 Syria (Al-Monitor) – Imagine yourself in a quiet town, by a river whose banks are fertile agricultural fields. Imagine you are walking by archaeological sites that imbue the place with a special charm. Imagine a city where the population works quietly, where the streets are clean, where you only find a few things rolling here and there, and where the squares are accustomed to hold rallies for a special recurrent event.

This special event is the execution and decapitation operation, and those few things rolling here and there are nothing but severed heads.

Welcome to Raqqa.

Despite everything that is happening, there is still movement to and from the “state of Raqqa,” be it from Deir Ez-Zor, or Turkey through the Tal Abyad crossing or the countryside of east Aleppo. The buses bound for Damascus, Hama and Homs also cross Raqqa. Naturally, everyone crosses the checkpoints erected by the Islamic State (IS), which is rigorously searching for military members or activists wanted on charges that range from secularism and cursing the “state,” among others. Naturally, women have to wear a veil and be accompanied by a man from the family, i.e., a muhrem [a man in a legal relationship with the women], in the arduous journey.

The city of Raqqa has not changed much from the inside, but it has put on an IS cloak. It transformed from being the capital city of the province of Raqqa into the capital city of the “Wilaya of the Islamic State.” Al-Nahim roundabout and Al-Saha roundabout are the theaters of death sentences, some of which are carried out by knife beheadings while others by shooting or stoning to death. In some cases, the victims are crucified for three days. In others, the severed heads remain in the squares or city streets.

Markets and cafes operate normally, especially during the evening. There is no deficiency or chaos in terms of prices, and there are no armed men on the streets, with the exception of the IS elements, that is. Everyone is expected to stop whatever they are doing and join the prayers on time. Women wear loose black clothes with the niqab. As for the men, they are not allowed to have a haircut that is “Western-style.” There are battalions specialized in monitoring people and detecting any kind of violation. In such cases, the punishment ranges from beatings to long detentions, which are reduced depending on the whim of the militant.

Universities and schools, whether public or private, are closed upon an IS decision, pending the preparation of a new curriculum that would replace the old one that is “contrary to Islam.” Teachers who find themselves competent were called to apply and attend a “Sharia cycle” to prepare the new curriculum. A teacher predicted that the Syrian universities’ acceptance list will be devoid of any branch of college, institute or hospital in Raqqa.

Abu Ibrahim, an activist who is still working in the city, said that all the parties [within Raqqa] are responsible for what is happening. “Any [party] could have taken advantage of the entire city and imposed a different reality. IS was just a small faction like any other faction. It began kidnapping and killing activists, so the residents of Raqqa and the Descendants of the Prophet brigades confronted them at a time when Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the rest of the Free Army groups refused to participate in the fighting, arguing that they are brothers and that they cannot enter into such strife. Subsequently, the Descendants of the Prophet brigades, along with other groups, lost their headquarters due to bombings carried out by IS. In early January, fighters from Raqqa tried to regain the city, and Ahrar al-Sham subsequently retreated while al-Nusra refused to provide them with weapons. Thus, IS returned to imposing its full grip,” he said.

Another activist, who requested anonymity out of fear for his life, said that the slogan of unity was the reason behind everything that is happening today. “We turned a blind eye to many details, including the chaos of the arms, the repeated arrests, the absence of any authority or local council, in addition to the battalions that were smuggling oil and selling it. We did this under the pretext of unity or individual errors. This pretext applied to IS as many considered talking about it as a crime, and they kept reminding us of the role of its elements in the battles, their courage versus the errors and problems of the Free Army,” he said.

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