Dispatches from an Occupied Land

Book review: The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State, by Samer, translated by Nader Ibrahim

Samer (not his real name) is a Syrian hoping to begin his studies when Assad’s regime is overthrown and the Islamic State (referred to here as Daesh, another of its names) rolls into the country, taking Raqqa as a de facto capital. The citizens have a brief glimmer of hope that things will change now that they’re out from under Assad’s thumb, before they’re quickly disabused of that notion in the transition from one oppressive regime to another. And as the world has since learned, Daesh is worse than anything that came before.

The rest of the country’s story is already known. What’s been more difficult to grasp is how the people in Syria have lived under this oppressive, abusive occupation. It’s been hard for journalists to get word from those inside, with Daesh setting strict limitations or outright bans on means of communication. Samer was able to communicate with BBC reporters, who broadcast his reports and observations on daily life on BBC Radio 4’s Today program. His words had to be encrypted and smuggled to the UK via a third country.

He risked beheading, the group’s preferred barbaric method of punishment for speaking to Western media, among other transgressions. Punishments like this aren’t uncommon: he witnesses beheading and crucifixions, much as he tries to avoid seeing things like this for the sake of his sanity. Others flock to city squares to watch such events. He’s let off easier than others (stretching the limits of that expression) in that he’s only punished with forty lashes after inadvertently cursing aloud in horror at a beheading.

Always unavoidable are the airstrikes, as Russian planes strafe the cities with the aim of eradicating the terrorism that runs rampant on the ground, but as Samer points out, for citizens it only means dealing with terrorism from the air as well. In one pivotal moment, Daesh bans televisions, then enacts additional charges on landline phones, electricity and water. Mobile phones had already been declared un-Islamic. Taxes on food items rise and the food just can’t be bought, not only hurting the people but wrecking the economy.

This book is a compilation of those observations, and it’s harrowing to read. The world looked on, many countries staunchly refusing aid or help to refugees from Syria, and to any of us who have not experienced war or occupation, what these people have been subjected to is unimaginable. The intent of a book like this is to try to make that nightmare real for others, to mobilize empathy for those who insist on turning a blind eye to fellow humans in need. Samer is able to put a human face, albeit an understandably anonymous one, on the day to day life in Syria under Daesh’s control.

Many people here tell me they wish they were already dead. Many are hoping to cross into Turkey, but the border is completely closed. It’s hopeless. Many have been maimed by the regime’s war machine. Some are missing limbs. These injuries have a dramatic impact on them and those who care for them. Every single person here has lived with horror. Yet instead of weeping or cursing, they all try to help each other.

Much of the media coverage of Syria has, inevitably, looked more at the political and military side of the conflict than the way it has effected people’s everyday lives. This makes it harder for those living far away from it all to truly understand the suffering it has caused civilians there. That’s Mike Thomson, BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent in the book’s introduction. But we do need to understand, to put personal anecdotes to the barrage of easily-numbing media reports from the war-torn land.

Samer himself escaped occupied Raqqa, residing as of the book’s writing in a refugee camp run by the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria.

The book is brief, with confessional diary-like entries accompanied by simplistic but beautiful, emotional drawings illustrating major events in the narrative. I liked it, and I think it’s an incredibly important document, but it was too short and abrupt to make as much of an impact as it could. That’s not to say it won’t have one and that it’s not necessary, and I know how perilous it was for the diarist even to smuggle out what he did. I hope that it’s not long before we have more such narratives, and I hope that more Syrians will have the opportunity and strength to tell their stories in future. It’s what we really need now, with certain politicians ranting and railing against their basic human rights.

The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State
by Samer (pseudonym), translated by Nader Ibrahim
Illustrations by Scott Coello
published March 9, 2017 in Great Britain by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House Group)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review. 

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