In the Fardous neighborhood of Raqqa, men, women and children gather in front of a small tent on the grass of the children’s park. Beside them are large loudspeakers directed toward the entrance of the “banner of al-Qaeda” tent. Then someone’s voice is heard from the loudspeaker. The people raise their hands, and random answers are uttered in low voices.
A child quickly exited from a park entrance carrying candy and a box wrapped up with a book, which he won in a “religious” competition. The competition prizes can sometimes even include mobile phones. At another entrance hung the drawings for the “teach us campaign” for children. The drawings were made in the first days after the armed opposition forces gained control of Raqqa in March 2013.
A member of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) stood with a microphone and asked questions to those gathered, while a child no older than 12 stood by holding a rifle, which he continuously moved from one shoulder to the other, as he organized the waiting line.
The fighter holding the microphone asked a girl no older than 5, “What do you know about ISIS?” She quickly and shyly answered, “Raqqa.” The attendees laughed and then the fighter boasted, “Did you know that Raqqa, which is ruled by ISIS, has a larger area than the state of Kuwait?”
This is not the first contest that ISIS has held in the city. A few days earlier, it built a “proselytizing tent” at Naim roundabout and held the same activity, although at the time ISIS shared control of the city with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
Just a few meters from the park, in the same neighborhood, women waited in long lines for sometimes up to seven hours in front of a bakery, waiting for bread. A masked gunman organized the line. The bakery used to be for both men and women, but ISIS banned the sexes from mixing and assigned two bakeries for women and one for men from among the government bakeries.
ISIS also requires some bakeries to set certain hours or days for men and others for women, who ISIS requires wear the hijab before they can stand in line for bread. Near the masked man stood a Tunisian muhajir [immigrant], according to some women. He cursed them, saying they weren’t “respectable” and compared them to Syrian women in Deir al-Zour, whom he called “loud,” and their counterparts in the countryside of Aleppo whom he called “virtuous.” He accused some women of wanting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to return so they could remove the veil and drink wine.
In the nearby al-Thakana neighborhood, while the shopkeepers performed their afternoon prayers at a mosque, a late-model car with no license plates carrying three ISIS gunmen stopped in front of a shop that didn’t fully close for prayer. The dry cleaning shop only closed its glass facade. One fighter jumped out of the car and slowly approached the shop, looking inside and then returning. A few minutes later, the worshipers finished their prayers and returned to work.
A few shops away on the same side of the street, a fast food restaurant opened its doors and the fighters went to purchase food. A neighborhood resident despondently said, “They [ISIS] are allowed to not pray on time, but not us. We must close the shop for prayer time.”
In the evening, a number of ISIS members gathered in front of the Hadari fast food restaurant in the neighborhood. Most of the restaurant’s customers are fighters, specifically non-Syrian fighters who call themselves al-muhajiroun [immigrants]. They ordered a variety of Western foods. As they waited for their meals, they started conversations with the civilian customers. A fighter said to a civilian, “States are built with sacrifice and blood, not negotiations and peaceful solutions,” commenting on the Geneva II conference. “We left our children and our homes and our women, and came to stand in solidarity with our religion.” The expressionless civilian replied, “May god bring you success.” Another fighter said to a restaurant worker, “Inhabitants in the areas that ISIS left are calling us and complaining of robberies, looting and rapes after the FSA took control.”
Between the restaurant and dry cleaner shop is a barbershop. A fighter who speaks neither Arabic nor English entered. He was Chechen and can only speak Russian. The fighter tried to communicate using hand gestures to the young man who works in the shop. After several minutes, the young man understood that the fighter wanted his beard trimmed. When finished, the fighter tried to pay, but the young man waved his hand as if to say “next time.” The shop owner has mastered communication without understanding their language, since many are now his customers.
On the other side of the neighborhood is a relief kitchen, which has been serving free food to the poor and displaced for more than two years. In front of the kitchen is a long line of women and children waiting for their meals.
Nearby are the Lazurd and Karank tourist hotels, which ISIS uses to house fighters and their wives. On the glass door of Lazurd, “No entry. Private” is written. Late-model cars line the area in front of the hotels. The fighters bring in food, blankets and equipment, but because of the intense pressure and the increasing numbers of non-Syrian fighters, ISIS is forcing inhabitants who own more than one home to hand over the keys of their unused homes. “Would you allow your jihadist brother to live in the street?” they ask, according to someone who talked to ISIS members who tried to use the home of his son, who lives abroad.
Buying and selling and the Internet
In a conversation between two young men in the neighborhood, one said in a local dialect, “It [the neighborhood] should be called ‘the front.’” The other man interrupted and said, “No. Brigade 17, Hassan.” Those two men were expressing the general state of resentment among the population.
ISIS fighters are not fighting the Assad regime now. They live in the city and with the people. They eat, drink, browse the Internet and run patrols to enforce prayer, wearing the veil and smoking rules. But they don’t fight the regime, they only fight against the armed opposition factions.
The poor living conditions, the delay in paying the salaries of government workers and them having to travel outside the province to get their salaries, have forced many to sell anything they can on the streets. Now, street “stalls” are in the city, especially on Tel Abyad Street, the major commercial market in Raqqa.
The street stalls sell fruits, vegetables, food, shoes, clothing, children’s toys and even military clothing. There are stalls just for military trousers, jackets, ammunition holders and pistol holders, all with camouflage patterns. They also sell bullets for pistols, the Syrian revolution flag and sometimes black and white banners emblazoned with the words “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” But today, they are only selling al-Qaeda flags.
Nearby street stalls sell women’s underwear. Other stalls have signs saying, “We have niqabs [the full face veil for Muslim women].” A man, who seemed from the countryside, asked the price of a niqab. “100 pounds [70 cents],” the seller told him.
In this market, some stalls sell milk, children’s towels and specific types of tissue paper. Some say that those items originated from the relief baskets, but it is difficult to say for sure.
On the corner of almost every street are drums containing various oil products, some of which come from the “refineries” now scattered in several areas controlled by the opposition, and some come from government refineries in areas under government control.
While people buy and sell in the market, ISIS fighters sit in Internet cafes, which are the only means of communication between the residents of the city and the outside world after the regime cut the communications network and the ground-based Internet in opposition-controlled areas. ISIS elements browse the Internet to the point that people know of cafes that are almost exclusively frequented by the fighters, whom some people call “Internet soldiers.”
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