Raed Moatassem and his family arrived in Britain on a characteristically cold and blustering afternoon in the autumn of 2015. Raed, a former school teacher, is a seasoned traveler, but this was the first overseas adventure he'd taken that was in pursuit of sanctuary, rather than leisure.
The Moatassems hail from Raqqa, the city that was invaded and brutalised by the theocratic cult of Daesh* and transformed into the capital of their feudal Islamic state in 2014.
"When news came that Daesh were on their way and would soon reach the outskirts of the city within days, the first to flee were the Alawites and Christians, including many of my friends," recalls Raed.
"You know what they do to Christians for example right?" He asks rhetorically — "they make them pay heavy tax, they force them to leave or they kill them in the worst way," he says, emphatically delivering the answer to his own question.
Before the arrival of Daesh, Raqqa was fabled not only across Syria, but the Middle East more generally, as a cradle of Arab civilisation known for its museums and sprawling ancient castles. Yet, once the black flags were erected above its stone walls, that all changed.
"In Raqqa, Muslims, Christians and Alawites had always lived together as neighbours and brothers. But one of the first things Daesh done was destroy churches and Shia mosques. This has created tensions between Sunni Muslims and those other religions, something which never existed before in Raqqa," Raed says, taking intermittent sips of black coffee and furrowing his brow, clearly still enraged by what Daesh done to his home town.
Reports say that Daesh carried out a systematic campaign of exterminating religious minorities, including Alawites, the religious sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. In July 2016 alone, reports say that roughly 600 Alawites were killed by the terrorist group.
Raqqa played a decisive role as both a symbol and strategic hub in Daesh's terrorist activities in and across the Middle East from 2014 to 2017. Not only was it their de-facto capital until the group was pushed out of the city by the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2017, but it also functioned as a planning centre for overseas terrorist atrocities, including those that occurred across Europe between 2014-2017.
Yet, Raed's wife, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Sputnik that the reality was much worse than the headlines suggest.
"I remember them celebrating in the streets after they'd driven Nusra and other groups from the city. They put their black flags everywhere and were firing machine guns at the sky for days. They began to kill as soon as they arrived," she says.
She then goes on to recall a particularly horrific incident that she witnessed soon after the convoys of Jihadis set up camp in the city.
"I remember just the day after they arrived, three of them, big men, stopped a young boy on the street and told him to pray, but he did not do it right. One of the Daesh smashed the handle of his gun into the boy's face and told him to do it again, but again the boy did not know how, so they beat him more. People tried to help. An old man shouted, 'leave him son, he's just a boy!' but they continued until the boy stopped screaming. Eventually, they accused him of being an Alawite and took him away," Raed's wife recalls.
Khiri was just a baby when ISIS took him. They repeatedly broke the bones in his legs and mangled his left ear. We should be doing everything we can to help these children because we’re all to blame for the fact that they weren’t protected. #Yazidigenocide pic.twitter.com/DbQ5lA4S2O— Sally Becker (@sallybecker121) 13 January 2019
A Society Transformed
After Daesh took control of Raqqa, strict codes of social conduct were enacted under an ultra-puritanical interpretation of Sharia law: alcohol was prohibited, smoking was banned along with music, movies, poetry, books and dancing.
"They were often watching out to see if people done any of these things. It was like a big eye, watching you all the time," says Raed's wife.
The couple, who are in their mid-30s, recount how Daesh enforced a kind of collective amnesia on the entirety of Raqqa's population. Discussion of life before the Caliphate was outlawed, as if living memory itself became a sin.
"People — old and young, men and woman — were beaten, taken to prison, tortured and often killed for discussing the past in public. If you spoke about before that meant that you weren't happy in the Islamic state, that you were questioning it, which was an insult to the Sheikh Baghdadi," Raed says with a pang of bewilderment in his voice.
Raed had worked as an English teacher at a local high school for years, but was given a new assignment once Daesh had taken over the local school board: Quran and propagandised history.
"Alongside teaching Quran, I was given new teaching material. But it was not real history at all, it was totally fabricated. It was all based on the vision of Baghdadi. I had to tell the children, almost every day, about how the enemies of Islam have always been the foreign non-Muslim countries fighting in Syria, like America and Russia, and that we will destroy them and make them our slaves. If I refused to say these things, they would kill me. I had no choice," he told Sputnik.
"They left bodies hanging from lamp posts and laying in the streets, I guess to warn people like me not to question them, and to do as they told us, or we will end this way too."
"Air strikes were destroying entire blocs of buildings, killing hundreds of people at a time. What was strange was that this was not even the worst part for me. What was so bad was how my city, my home, had changed so much. I did not recognise it any more. Some of my students became brainwashed and wanted to fight for the Caliphate. People were terrorised, hungry exhausted and many were killing themselves," Raed solemnly explained to Sputnik.
The final straw came for him when a woman known by his wife was stoned to death for the crime of talking to a man in the street. This, Daesh argued, was tantamount to adultery.
"We waited for 6 weeks after I'd paid to be smuggled through a checkpoint to the northwest of Raqqa. After that we could make it to Turkey, where I had a relative who helped us get to Europe," says Raed.
"We were lucky, but my mind is always with those who were not."
*Daesh (ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State) is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.