The brutal Paris massacre committed by the Islamic State (ISIS), claiming 130 lives, has shocked the West into confronting the threat that the extremist organization poses. But for the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, the terror that Paris experienced remains a daily reality.
Fatima, 20, and her cousins Ahmed, 16, and Isa, 19, (not their real names) couldn’t quite believe they had made it safely to the Greek Island of Lesbos last week. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and I shared a meal of pizza with them, they and their relatives kept giggling nervously until I asked them what was wrong. Fatima immediately turned serious, and explained that they had been pointing out to one another all of the “offenses” committed by passers-by that would have led to their beheading by the ISIS killers whose domain they had just fled: wearing tight clothes, watching music videos, sharing a meal with members of the opposite sex, drinking beer…the list went on and on.
Life under ISIS in Syria and Iraq is barely tolerable for those who are forced to endure its horrific and often arbitrary violence, and the group’s tight control makes it difficult to escape. The self-declared Islamic Caliphate is not filled with ecstatic followers, cheering on its beheadings and the destruction of Syria’s and Iraq’s heritage. Instead, many live in a state of constant terror, trapped in their worst nightmare.
“When the Islamic State came, they told us they were bringing us the true Islam,” Isa recalled, “But immediately, they started killing in the name of Islam. Really, they just came for the money and oil.” Isa and Ahmed said that many of the ISIS fighters they saw were foreigners from Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, and Chechnya. Many others were French converts to Islam. Isa recited the long list of things ISIS outlawed: “Jeans are prohibited, smoking is prohibited, some foods are prohibited like pizza and mortadella because they come from the ‘land of the unbeliever;’ even sunflower seeds are prohibited!”
Ahmed continued the conversation: “Seeing the beheadings was the worst, and it was compulsory to go watch them. I had to go see them so many times, sometimes even every day. Our neighbor was beheaded by them because he had helped some Free Syrian Army soldiers escape. They found him and beheaded him.” I asked Ahmed, who fled just one week before, how recently he had witnessed an execution, which now happen mostly on Fridays, after the midday prayer. He said it was about two weeks before he fled: “I witnessed the execution of three brothers. They were accused of accidentally killing their sister. So after Friday prayer, they beheaded all three of them.”
Ahmed, just 16 years old, had close brushes with death himself. The first time, a few weeks ago, was when an informant accused him of blasphemy, saying he had overheard Ahmed calling a friend “son of God.” Ahmed was hauled to an ISIS-controlled mosque, where he was threatened with beheading until it became clear that someone else had uttered the offending words—in fact, an ISIS sympathizer, so the case was dismissed.
On another occasion, Ahmed was accused of skipping his prayers, and sentenced to twenty lashes, administered by a Saudi ISIS member using a horsewhip.
Not long afterward, Ahmed, who was working at a pharmacy, went to another pharmacy to see if it had a medicine his pharmacy did not have in stock. He asked an elderly woman who worked there for the medication. ISIS detained him again, this time for speaking to someone of the opposite sex, and threatened with death. His uncles, fearing for his life, told him to stop going to work, and scrambled to find sufficient money to smuggle him and the other two young relatives out.
Fatima was not much luckier. “All of these ISIS restrictions, they make you hate yourself as a woman,” she said. “They make you wear all black and cover everything, and even tell you what shoes you can wear.” One day, as she was walking in the street with her sister and her sister’s baby, the ISIS religious police decided that the infant’s dress was too short and “un-Islamic.” They took the sisters and the infant to the ISIS court, and then turned their attention to Fatima’s abaya, which was deemed too form-fitting and revealing. Her family was ordered to pay a fine to bail her out. “I was only detained for a few hours, but I will never forget that fear,” she told me. “I was crying for days afterward.”
Why would anyone choose to live under such arbitrary terror and repression, you may be asking. But for many in ISIS-controlled territory, there is no choice. The Islamic State has made it very difficult for anyone to leave its self-declared Islamic Caliphate -- which it markets as a modern-day utopia -- for the Dar al-Kuffar, the lands of the unbelievers.
Until about five months ago, ISIS allowed people to leave the town in Syria that Fatima, Ahmed, and Isa fled. Those who left forfeited all of their property to ISIS, and risked the security of relatives who remained behind. But five months ago, ISIS prohibited anyone from leaving, at the same time insisting that all fighting-age males, who in their view include children, join the ranks of their jihadis.
Ahmed told me: “Now, everyone [male] who is 14 years or older has to do jihad, but we see even younger ones fighting, some as young as 12. Once it became compulsory to do jihad, we [males] didn’t leave the house. For the last month and a half, I have not left the house very much, except for Friday prayer which is compulsory, and the executions they take us to afterward.”
Escaping took an elaborate plan and the use of a costly smuggler. They claimed they were visiting relatives in an area close to the Turkish border, and were then smuggled into Turkey under cover of darkness. But the grasp of ISIS extends far: Fatima, Ahmed, and Isa made me promise not to use their picture, their real names, the name of their town, or any other identifying characteristics that may allow ISIS to punish their relatives. As Fatima explained, “They would execute my relatives just for me talking to you.”
The three all left many relatives behind when they fled. “Just put yourself in our place,” Fatima said, when I asked her what went through her head when she had to say goodbye to her mother and other relatives. “I said goodbye to them as if I was never going to see them again.” With the increased bombing campaign by France and Russia, her fears for her relatives are not just about ISIS. “Just yesterday, there were airstrikes on my neighbourhood, and I can’t even call my mom to find out if everyone is OK,” Fatima sadly added.
As the world decides how to confront ISIS, and how to cope with the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the country, the countries involved need to be aware that hundreds of thousands of civilians remained trapped in ISIS-controlled areas against their will. Those undertaking attacks on ISIS areas need to keep those trapped civilians in mind, and take measures to avoid civilian deaths and further suffering. And they need to make sure that people who are fleeing ISIS terror can find safety and security in Europe and elsewhere, and don’t need to risk their lives as they try to find safety.