Raqqa: The city of ghosts

Yesterday I watched a very moving – and harrowing film – called City of Ghosts about an astonishing group of Syrian men who formed the movement Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered – a citizen led press movement to tell the world of the atrocities taking place in Raqqa. From fighting for political freedom under the Assad regime to living under the bloodthirsty rule of ISIS, they risked their lives – and continue to do so today – to spread light on the realities on the ground. Despite having since lost family members, friends and colleagues in “revenge attacks” both in Syria and Turkey, these brave inspirational men continue the fight for peace and justice and in 2015, the group were awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I’d like to share with you a message from the co-founder of RBSS, Aziz (Abdalaziz Alhamza), courtesy of The Syria Campaign to give an insight into life in Raqqa and the RBSS movement. Take a look at Aziz’s story…

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Abdalaziz Alhamza (Image: New America – CC)

Raqqa, the city where I was born in 1991, used to be the forgotten city of Syria. The TV weather forecast even missed us out. Now as the capital of the Islamic State, the name of Raqqa is never far from the lips of world leaders.

To me, Raqqa is the city where I grew up and where I have my friends and relatives. It’s the city where I speak my accent (I miss it now) and where I went to school and spent my childhood. Raqqa is a place where everyone knows everyone else. If you don’t know someone directly, you’ll know his brother. And if you don’t know his brother, you’ll definitely know his cousin.

When I grew up everyone wanted to leave Syria for work – usually to somewhere like Dubai. But that’s because the government was controlling 80% of the economy. A country that has oil, gas, historical sites, antiquities, ancient civilisation, tourism and so much more besides. We were tired of the government controlling all the money. When I joined the peaceful protests in 2011 it was because I believe I have a right to have a good life in my own country.

For decades we were so scared. There was no freedom of expression, we used to say the walls have ears. Everyone was a spy and you’d keep hearing that this neighbour or that neighbour was arrested for political reasons. Saying a single word against the Assad regime could result in 20-50 years in prison or being killed. You can’t imagine these conditions.

But in 2011 we realised that people have more power than the government. People were able to break the fear and go into the street even though they knew they might face death in any second.

Most Syrians outside of my city never thought or talked about Raqqa until March 4, 2013, the morning we woke up to be the first liberated city in Syria. After nearly two years of protest and revolt, our people had managed to push the Assad regime forces out the city, and Syrians nicknamed Raqqa the “Capital of Liberation”.

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Raqqa – the “Capital of Liberation” (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

That’s when for the first time in 40 years, civilians were running the city. We had a local and provincial council and dozens of civil society organisations. I was part of the Union of Free Syrian Students and we opened up the university again. Many people who were fleeing persecution from the Assad regime came to Raqqa and were able to have a normal life. Civil society organisations had more power than the armed groups – how it should be.

But then Isis came.

First they came in small numbers, and we demonstrated against them. Then they came with heavy weapons stolen from Iraq and those who were defending Raqqa didn’t have the means to stop them. Our city’s fighters pleaded with the international community for more support but it didn’t come and Isis took over.

But Raqqawis – people from Raqqa – never accepted Isis.

Less than 1% of locals joined Isis. That means that most are against Isis but they can’t show it, they can’t say it, otherwise they’ll be arrested or killed. Our people have been living under Isis for years but just keeping their heads low as civilians. This means no salaries and jobs. If they joined Isis they would get money, cars – even sex – but still Raqqawis refuse. This silent refusal is one of the most important forms of resistance.

In April 2014 along with a few of my friends we set up Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently to counter Isis propaganda.

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Children are growing up amongst violence and bloodshed (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

We began sneaking covert photos and footage out of Raqqa, publishing them on our social media channels, showing that this wasn’t the utopia that Isis claimed. We sprayed anti-Isis slogans on the walls of our town and published our own magazine mocking their propaganda. They hated it and hunted us down.

Many of us escaped Raqqa then but Isis responded by targeting our families. They released a propaganda video of the execution of the father of my friend and RBSS co-founder Hamoud al-Mousa. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever had to watch. But this didn’t stop us. Our anonymous colleagues in Raqqa continue to this day to sneak out footage and information which gets picked up by the biggest networks in the world. Our pictures and video from inside the heart of Isis’s capital have been broadcast by the BBC, CNN and other channels.

But today the threat to my city’s civilians is not just from Isis.

The US and its allies have been begun bombing Raqqa and the surrounding area recklessly. Since the beginning of the year these airstrikes have killed more civilians than Isis. This ‘scorched earth’ policy is because they want to defeat Isis militarily as soon as possible. But they don’t ever think about the day after defeating Isis.

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Raqqa – a destroyed city (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

In the coming weeks and months as Isis gets driven out of its territory, people will ask who is taking over. The Kurdish-led forces backed by the West have displaced people and burned homes. It is hard to see them welcomed by locals in and around Raqqa.

And then there are rumours that these areas will be handed over to Assad. This is the worst scenario.

Many would be arrested and killed – it will be a massacre. Worse than that, it will be a step back to the beginning of this mess. Assad created this extremism. Many people were radicalised because of how his regime treated its own people. Every single Syrian has a brother, friend, neighbour or relative killed by Assad.

I have been interrogated many times by Isis, they killed many of my friends and they tried to kidnap me. And yet still I understand that Assad is the main problem in Syria. This is the issue that the world needs to understand.

And yet I am hopeful.

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“Raqqa strong and free” (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

I have an optimism deep inside me more than six years since we first took to the streets. That is because today people are still demanding their rights. I feel hope looking at people in the different cities who are demonstrating every day. Like people in Maaret al-Numan who drove out Al Qaeda with their demonstrations.

That’s why I still have hope. There are still millions who believe in the Revolution. People who are resisting not only Assad, but all groups who are violating our rights. These are things that make me believe that one day we will have democracy and a united country where people can have jobs in a thriving economy.

When people outside the country ask what should be done about Raqqa or Syria, this is what I tell them. Help us to achieve a government that represents all of us, that will help us defeat extremism and permit Raqqawis and other Syrians to return home.

There is no other way.

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These men have given their lives in the fight towards freedom. I definitely recommend watching the film. You’re taken into the lives of RBSS – their struggles, their losses and their futures. The film is directed by Oscar-nominated Matthew Heineman and was given a 5-star review by The Guardian who stated it “could be the definitive Syrian documentary”.

For those of you in the UK, information on film screenings can be found here. You can also watch it on demand at home (UK/Ireland). For those of you in the US and elsewhere, the film will be available on Amazon Prime from 13th October 2017. Do check it out but warning – some scenes are quite graphic.

To also find out more about RBSS and to keep up with the latest news on Syria, please visit the following sites:

Thank you to our Syrian brothers who have dedicated their lives to bringing the truth to the world about the atrocities in Syria. We can only but imagine the hardship you have all faced…

Credits and acknowledgements

Text written by Aziz (Abdalaziz Alhamza), as featured by The Syria Campaign (01/08/2017).

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Mapping out Europe: The “ban the burqa” debate rages on

niqab-2Governments across Europe are talking about the “burqa” once again [in other words: banning Islamic face veils such as the niqab and burqa]. Although very few countries have officially banned the burqa in public places, many are starting to discuss taking this step in the future. […] The debate is heating up across Europe.

It’s become inescapable. Not a week passes by in Europe when Islam generally, and Muslims more specifically, are not dissected in the media or discussed in government chambers. One day it’s the strange Slovakian Prime Minister who feels he must  “protect his people” from Muslims. Another day, it’s the abominable Geert Wilders who wants to implement an outright “ban on the Quran” in the Netherlands. Now in France, a shocking report from the Institut Montaigne entitled “A French Islam is possible“, has sparked further tension.

While there is no case law on lip service, the ongoing European debate about Islam and those who practice it has centred in on one tiny piece of the puzzle: a piece of fabric called the niqab, the burka or the full-face veil. It has managed to inflame public opinion each year and has now entered into the legal arsenal of certain member states of the EU. Proof of this has been the unending debate about the “burkini” in France this summer. More recently, a YouGov poll in the UK showed that 57% of Brits interviewed were in favour of the burqa ban. That said, in other European countries, wearing the veil has never been an issue. So, which countries are hotly debating the burqa and which goverments have gone so far as to pass legislation against the burka?

Source: Café Babel – see original article for full interactive map annotations

In a study of Europeans aged 18-34, Generation What? interviewed half a million young people from 30 different countries. Respondents from 17 different countries said that it “did not shock them” to see “women wearing veils in the street or at work.” As only a small majority of respondents, this leaves us with the possibility that Europe may not necessarily become more tolerant of the burqa in the future.

Credits:

Article written by Matthieu Amaré and translated by Charlotte Walmsley (FR > ENG)

Image credits: Hani Amir (Flickr) (feature image), John Alcorn

This article was first published on  Café Babel (26/09/2016)