Small carts carrying fruits and vegetables are parked in front of the Circassians Mosque in the Bayatra neighborhood of Raqqa. The vendors are trying to take advantage of the unprecedented number of the neighborhood’s residents and shopkeepers who go to the mosque these days.
Only five minutes left until the Maghrib (sunset) prayer. Men, youths and children are already rushing to the mosque, amid stories circulating that a young man was given 40 lashes because he arrived three minutes late for the service. At a distance, three men dressed in Afghan clothing can be seen carrying automatic rifles. They are heading toward the mosque. As they enter, the imam has started the call to prayer.
On the opposite side of the neighborhood, on Tel Abyad Street, black cars with no registration plates are carrying masked gunmen. They are roaming the streets at high speed, while raising the al-Qaeda banner, in an attempt to “catch” those violating the decision that shops be closed and all residents attend prayers [during prayer times].
In the areas of the city that are usually the busiest, namely at the Naim roundabout and the intersection of Khodr Street, daily activity has almost completely come to a halt. Children lay rugs and carpets on the ground, providing a place to pray for those who could not get to the mosques. These days in Raqqa, shop owners are required to close their shops and stop selling to the public [during prayer times]. Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) told shopkeepers that prayer time is an hour to get closer to God, an hour of worship. They imposed this decision on shop owners and warned against disobeying them. ISIS has issued a decision to impose congregational prayer on “all Muslims in Muslim countries,” and punish with flogging those who do not attend the prayers and irrevocably close their shops.
The imam of the Circassians Mosque starts reciting the Surah al-Fatiha (the opening verse of the Quran), while an increasing number of worshipers are still arriving. Some of the worshipers bow in prayer, while others express unease. Once the imam concludes the prayer by turning his head to the left, worshipers get up quickly and leave the mosque immediately. One minute later, an ISIS member stands at the back of the mosque and looks for his fellow gunmen, while carefully looking at the worshipers. He is a skinny man in his 60s who is wearing a blue and green Afghan shirt and does not smell good. He is carrying a rifle that he has been holding throughout the prayer sermon, while sitting in the front row.
After this prayer, people still have to attend the Isha (evening) prayer. The ISIS has imposed a new law, for people to pray five times a day in the mosque or perform congregational prayer. This has prompted shop owners to close their stores almost 15 minutes before the prayer starts, and many of them go to their houses to avoid having to pray by force. Ahmed, who owns a grocery store, said, “It seems that we will continue to pray in this manner for a long period. It disrupts our work, and it is difficult for us to close our shops and reopen them four times a day.” He added, “It is good and relaxing to pray. Personally, I have been praying in my shop for a long time, but to be forced to pray is definitely going to be repelling.”
In the evening, the market activity is no longer the same as before. The decisions that were issued by the organization have limited people's movements.
Stores selling cigarettes and water pipes (hookah) were compelled to shut down, as they are prohibited to sell these products in the wilayat [administrative divisions] of Raqqa. ISIS soldiers, as they call themselves, set a number of stores that did not abide by the decision on fire. Even sidewalk vendors, who appeared widely after the Syrian army lost control of the city in March 2013, are no longer allowed to sell their products, under penalty of severe punishments including flogging. Smokers are now afraid to smoke on the streets. If ISIS members see anyone smoking, they will immediately arrest him and impose a whipping. One smoker recounts stories of a man who was caught smoking on the street. ISIS members arrested and whipped him, and tried to break his fingers by bending them left and right with pliers. One smoker says with resentment, “It is not their right to impose anything personal on us. To quit smoking needs therapy and takes time. How could one quit in a few days?”
Smokers in town have no choice left but to smoke within the confines of their homes. This has left a negative impact on the owners of cigarette and hookah shops as well as cafes and cafeterias, as the number of customers is declining. Many of these owners are now thinking of closing their cafes. Mohamad (a pseudonym), the manager of a cafe in Raqqa, said, “No customers come in. Many of our customers are smokers, and they do not enjoy a cup of coffee if they can't smoke a cigarette with it. They are indirectly forcing us to close the cafe. They forbade men and women from sitting at the same table. Then, they banned women from entering [cafes]. They keep repeating, 'We are not forcing anyone, we are just offering advice.'”
Women are now banned from entering cafes or walking on the street without the veil, as imposed by Sharia. The ISIS tried in the past to allure women into wearing the niqab (the full face veil), and this campaign lasted for months. However, the organization was not able at the time to impose on women what to wear, because it was sharing power over the city with Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya. Yet, when ISIS defeated both organizations, it issued a circular compelling women to wear the niqab. Prior to this, the ISIS set up billboards to explain the characteristics of the veil according to Sharia: it must not be translucent and must cover all body parts, including the face and hands. Also, it should not resemble male attire or have any distinctive features. The organization also transformed the service center of the MTN mobile phone company near the Naim roundabout in downtown Raqqa into a shop selling the niqab, called “al-Durra al Massuna” (“Protected Gem”). The shop sells veils at wholesale prices, as mentioned on the banner hung outside the shop.
Women in the city were first determined not to abide by ISIS’ decisions. However, with the execution that took place in Naim Square on Jan. 24, in addition to the patrols aiming to punish women violating the decision, women found themselves compelled to wear the niqab. In addition, the punishment is applied to the woman and her guardian, i.e., father, husband or brother. This is why women abided and wore the niqab, yet not in the form required by the organization.
Many women wore the black abaya — the traditional outfit of the women in the province — and a plain veil wrapped around the head to cover the mouth; some of them even wore colored veils. Some girls refused to wear the niqab or even the abaya, and preferred staying at home over going out dressed in an outfit other than their usual one. One girl, who preferred to remain anonymous, reported that she was harassed on the street because of what she was wearing, even though she thought she looked decent. “I will not go out of the house as long as the niqab is imposed. I will never wear it,” she said. According to activists, two girls were flogged in an ISIS detention center for not wearing the proper niqab. This punishment was administered by what has come to be known among the population and in the media as the Khansa Women’s Battalion. It is a group of wives of migrants (non-Syrian fighters) who turned the Karnak and Lazord hotels into a residence for them and their husbands and children, and who move in the city in a minibus driven by an ISIS member. But imposing the niqab had negative consequences on the ISIS, as more than 25 members, including a senior commander, were shot dead by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who entered the city dressed as veiled women. They were able to carry out the operation because of the restrictions on the inspection of women and the fact that the latter are not requested to show any identity documents at ISIS checkpoints that are scattered across the main roads in the province.
With the end of armed clashes in the city between ISIS on the one hand and Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front on the other, a large number of ISIS members flowed in from the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, after being forced out from these regions by fighters of the FSA and Islamic Front. These ISIS members tightened their grip on the city and organized patrols. The city also witnessed an opposing movement, as a large number of its population headed toward the Syrian-Turkish border and crossed it toward the Turkish towns of Akcakale and Urfa. The activists were among the first to cross the border, since they are threatened more than others. Many of them left the city, but others remained there. Maaz Huwaidi, an official in the Raqqa Youth Coordination Committee, told Al-Hayat that the committee members had not intended to leave the city, unless the regime regained control over it. For a certain period of time, they were staying in Raqqa incognito, to preserve their personal safety. He added, “After a radical organization took full control of the city — an organization that is not Syrian or does not believe in the Syrian identity and is unwilling to engage in dialogue with anyone who shares a different opinion — it was necessary to flee the town to the nearest safe point, which is the Turkish town of Urfa.”
Although he admitted that all they can offer the city while abroad is relief work — which he said is everyone's duty — he and his team will support the military movement with full force, and they will use all the possibilities, relationships and financial means available. The official in the committee affiliated with the Local Coordination Committee in Syria, one of the most prominent groups that contributed to the outbreak and continuation of the Syrian revolution, added that they are planning to open a temporary office in Urfa. “After the coordination committee team, which was a key player in Raqqa, left to Urfa and in light of the increasing number of young people and families from Raqqa in Urfa, we are now looking for a place where the coordination committee can carry out its activities from Urfa,” he added. According to Huwaidi, the revolution, which caused the people to flee, aimed at respecting dignity, freedom, citizenship and creating a united Syria enjoying sovereignty over its entire territory.