Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Escape From Raqqa

How a female activist managed to flee Islamic State forces in their Syrian stronghold.
By Haya Mohammed

Last September 15, there was a knock at our door. I was initially overjoyed to see my friend after so much, until I saw her red face and tear-filled eyes. She stood there looking dishevelled in a floral house dress and plastic shoes.

I was struck dumb for a few seconds till my mum started asking her, “What happened to you? What’s wrong?”

My friend broke down in floods of tears, as if she had been holding back her emotions for a long time.

“They wanted to take me. They attacked our house, but miraculously I escaped,” she told us as she cried.

My mum tried to calm her, asking her to lie down and tell us what happened. After a few minutes, she started describing how she narrowly escaped the clutches of Islamic State militants.

Her hands shook and she could not stop crying.

“I was sitting in the garden of my house browsing Facebook when I heard violent knocking at the door. I thought nothing of it until my cousin opened the door and I heard people screaming, ‘Where is she?’

“My cousin answered, ‘She’s in Turkey.’ After arguing for few minutes, they pushed past him into the house. My cousin was shouting at them, ‘There are women in the house!’ and asked me to put on my hijab.

“I didn’t have time to move. Within minutes they were standing in front of me, armed and wearing Pakistani-style clothing with knee-length tunics and trousers underneath. An armed woman wearing an abaya [cloak] and niqab [face veil] was with them, too.

“‘Are you [my friend’s name]?’ they asked. ‘No, I’m her sister,’ I replied.

“They didn’t dare take me because they weren’t sure they had the right person. Apparently, someone had reported me.

“‘Give us your laptop,’ they demanded.

“‘Why do you want it?’ I asked.

“‘Just give it to us.’

“The only thing I could think of was to grab my computer and run to the living room.

“They followed me. I threw myself on the floor and used all my strength to break the laptop into two pieces.

“In the meantime, my cousin had run to get help from our neighbours. The armed men started kicking me while I screamed hysterically.

“My mother, who was not well, fainted on seeing her precious daughter trampled underfoot. The neighbours gathered round to save me and tend to my mother.

“They were able to push the gunmen out, convincing them that the ‘old lady’ was sick and needed quiet until an ambulance arrived. The armed men took up positions standing in front of the house, and my cousin and I seized this opportunity to escape, running across the roof to our neighbour’s house. Then I came here.

“Throughout this episode, I felt like someone was beating me around the head. I was wondering how these men could break into a house without asking the women to cover themselves, and how they could hit a Muslim woman so aggressively. Is this the Islam they are promoting?”

We tried to calm my friend, assuring her that she would be safe at our place until she could escape from the city. But there was nothing we could say to comfort her. It was especially hard, as she had been among the first to rebel against the Syrian regime, yet despite the tyrannical behaviour of the government security forces, they had not managed to humiliate her in the same way.

My friend stayed at our place for three extremely tense days. We felt stifled with fear, especially when her family visited the house. We knew that if Islamic State was monitoring us, we would be all in deep trouble.

We kept telling her it was a huge risk to remain in Raqqa, and that she should not be going through all this just to avoid the city becoming a place she could only visit in her dreams.

We became more insistent after we heard rumours that Islamic State wanted to behead her on charges of insulting the caliph, after they found her private writings on her computer’s hard disk.

Finally she gave in and decided to leave the city, dressed all in black.

On September 18, a male friend of ours arrived to help her get out. The plan was that he would travel with her to Turkey and pretend she was his wife. Since she would be wearing the niqab, they would not be unable to tell that she was not the person whose ID she was carrying.

By three in the morning, we were sitting anxiously waiting for her bus to come. Some of us watched the road in case the house was being monitored. Others tried to calm our friend and her companion down. Even a minor mistake would put them at risk.

When the bus arrived, we hugged them, wished them a safe trip and said a prayer for them. Those prayers were the only thing we could do to comfort her frightened soul and stem her tears .

We moved to the balcony to keep watch and make sure the bus left our neighbourhood without mishap.

After several hours consumed by fear and worry, we were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. We received a message from my friend that she had succeeded in escaping the shadow of Islamic State, and was now safe.

Haya Mohammed is the pseudonym of a student from Raqqa currently in Aleppo.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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