Review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State”

As accounts and interviews with those who have lived under Daesh rule in Syria and Iraq emerge, I have eagerly sought them out. It is one thing to study Daesh, to seek to understand its structures, its finances, its media, its violence. It is another, however, to understand the impact it has on people’s lives. Headlines that talk about capturing a new city, or losing control of one for that matter, obscure so much of the pain and violence that comes along with those noteworthy events. Their shocking nature also pushes us to dehistoricize, to forget what came before, all too easily slipping into assumptions that things there have been this way for some time. The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State” is a powerful antidote to these assumptions, generalized by those far away about events they only know through already simplified headlines.

The book is the result of the brave writing by a young man who lived under Daesh rule in Raqqa, the group’s organizational hub in Eastern Syria. With the help of Mike Thompsen, a BBC journalist, “Samer” the activist managed to smuggle his accounts out of Syria, to a third country, where they were translated and edited for presentation in this book. The end result is easy to read and accessible, at least on a literary level. On an emotional level, it is anything but easy to read, and is in fact very challenging. Readers will find it hard not to imagine themselves in Raqqa with Samer, experiencing the pain and trauma through his words.

Samer’s narrative of his life in Raqqa chronicles three broad periods to acquaint readers with Syria. Through memories, Samer discusses growing up under the Assad regime. He chronicles how his father had problems with regime intelligence services, and disappeared for some time (p.39). Readers see the toll this takes on Samer’s family. It turns out Samer’s father had been reported to the Assad government as a political dissident by his manager at work and had been detained. His family ultimately had to bribe the boss who had leveled the charges against Samer’s father. Samer’s mother sold her jewelry and a small piece of land they owned to get him out, but even in freedom Samer’s father had already lost so much. “I couldn’t understand how someone could take everything we knew from us like this” Samer says on p.46. “Not only was all this happening under the eyes of the (Assad) government, it had their complete support.” Additionally, Samer mentions the 1982 Hama Uprising and how it was crushed by government violence. Because it was not covered in the media, Samer states that Syrians have learned from this and approached things differently this time, making sure to film and put images online of government actions (p. 47).

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image taken from the book p.48-49

Once the uprising began in Syria several months after the initial movements of the Arab Spring, events in Syria snowballed from peaceful protest marches to violent escalating clashes with the Assad government, recalcitrant in power. Samer describes his arrest, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the regime (p.50). “This didn’t stop me,” he states. “If anything, it made me more rebellious.”

The final period the book details, as its name suggests, is life under ISIS rule once the organization seized control of Raqqa. I won’t quote the details here, but Samer describes many of the repressive and violent realities he was exposed to. The public sphere loses its vitality, and becomes a place where bad things happen. Samer and others want to stay home just to avoid interactions with Daesh. The store Samer’s family ran for years can’t make money anymore, it is too hard to move goods through the war zone and they reach Raqqa with very high prices. These give a tiny glimpse into the very real changes Daesh rule brought to Raqqa.

On specific anecdote about life under Daesh in Samer’s account caught my attention. While walking home, Samer was warned, cryptically, not to walk down a given street. He had an idea what this meant, but his human curiosity got the best of him. What he saw was shocking enough I will leave it out of this review. Even if he hadn’t been warned, such a sight would shock and traumatize anyone, but the human element of his inability to stay away was the most telling to me. Everything Samer had experienced was easily enough to make him avoid such sights, to take the advice of his friend. Yet those who live under ISIS rule are just as human as anyone, in all their virtues, vices, tendencies and shortcomings.

This account should be considered a primary source for the study of life under ISIS, and as such I highly recommend it. It brings the humanity, emotions, and trauma of those who have experienced life under ISIS into detail on its pages. Where other works I have read mostly deal with the history leading to the group’s emergence, this work is head and shoulders above the others to give one a sense of human life in Syria before the uprisings, during the Syrian War, and finally under Daesh rule.

 

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