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'Killed For A Bad Word' -- IS Retains Iron Grip Over 'Ghost City'


Militant Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade on the streets of the Syrian town of Raqqa, which was seized by the extremist group in August. (file photo)

Militant Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade on the streets of the Syrian town of Raqqa, which was seized by the extremist group in August. (file photo)

"In Raqqa, everyone is afraid of the air strikes. Raqqa is like a ghost town," says Abo Ward Al-Raqqawi, an activist living in the Syrian city controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Raqqawi (a pseudonym -- he says it is far too dangerous to reveal his real name) is an activist with the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Since IS gunmen took full control of the town in August 2013 -- the group's mostly foreign fighters ousting the local Free Syrian Army (FSA) and FSA-affiliated brigades -- Raqqawi and his fellow activists have risked their lives to document Islamic State's brutal repressions in Raqqa.

Speaking to RFE/RL by Skype on October 23, Raqqawi said that life for ordinary Raqqa residents has changed dramatically since the United States and its allies began air strikes against IS targets. Fearing they would be hit in the air raids, those who could fled the city to take refuge elsewhere.

"After the air strikes started, people got scared," he says. "Some people escaped to Turkey or Damascus or to other government-controlled areas."

Some of Raqqa's civilians who were not able to escape have left the city for the surrounding countryside, Raqqawi says.

While Islamic State militants maintain their presence in Raqqa, they are taking care not to go out on the streets, to avoid the air strikes, he adds.

IS has also sent many of its militants to Kobani, the northern Syrian town under siege by IS gunmen.

"Their women and children they sent to Iraq, or to Deir Ezzor," Raqqawi says, referring to the eastern Syrian province, much of which is under Islamic State control.

For most of the day, Raqqa's streets are empty, "like a ghost city," according to Raqqawi. People only go out onto the streets for a few hours every morning, to buy basic goods for the day.

"It is still possible to buy things, but there are huge crowds of people in places where bread is sold because the bakeries are only open for a few hours every morning. The prices are also much higher since the air strikes started," Raqqawi told RFE/RL.

Although IS has sent many of its militants out of the city, the extremist group has not relinquished its grip on Raqqa.

The city's schools are closed, and women are not allowed out onto the streets unless they wear a niqab and are accompanied by a close male relative.

IS militants are also still carrying out brutal executions of Raqqa's civilians.

"The executions are a little bit less now, because there are fewer people to be executed. But last Friday they executed two people here in the public square," Raqqawi says.

One of the men who was executed had committed the crime of "saying a bad word about Allah," according to Raqqawi.

There had been an altercation between some IS militants and the man's parents. The man joined in and was arrested. The man became angry and said the "bad word."

"So they executed him," Raqqawi says.

Although Raqqa's citizens are afraid of the coalition air strikes on their city, they "are happy because the U.S. aircraft are better than Al-Assad's aircraft, because Al-Assad kills ordinary people, but the coalition doesn't kill civilians," Raqqawi says, referring to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Raqqawi says that many in Raqqa think the air strikes have come too late. He believes the United States and its allies should have prevented IS from taking over the city in the first place, by arming the Free Syrian Army.

"If the United States had given the FSA weapons, then they would have been able to kick IS out of the city. IS would not have taken over. The Americans and the international community said they would give weapons but it was all lies. Just talk, talk, talk," says Raqqawi.

Raqqa has a long history, and has survived the rise and fall of empires. Founded around 244 B.C. by the Seleucids, Raqqa (then named Kallinikos) was conquered by the Byzantines, destroyed by the Persian Sasanids in 542 A.D., and later rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In the sixth century, Raqqa was a center for Syriac Christianity (the city's Christian population has now fled or been killed by IS). Between 796 and 809 A.D., the town was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate under Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. In recent times, the city rebelled against Syria's current president, Bashar Al-Assad. The city survived all these upheavals, but Raqqawi is not sure it will be able to expel IS any time soon.

"Now IS is so strong. It controls Raqqa and soon it will control many more cities in Syria. IS will grow stronger. Then there will be a real risk that no one will be able to fight them," he concludes.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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