Remembering the horrors of Raqqa
A Syrian refugee who escaped the conflict in the city of Raqqa in 2015 has told of his relief that fighting there has finally ended.
‘Sam’ (not his real name) who is now resettled in Melbourne said he was “very happy” the conflict had finally stopped and he hoped no more lives would be lost.
“Raqqa was such a beautiful city but it has been pretty much destroyed now,” Sam said.
“But at least the ISIS has gone and fighting has stopped. I hope that soon people will be able to go back to their old lives,” he said.
‘Sam’ witnessed first-hand the brutality of ISIS death squads and this sowed doubt in his mind about the long-term future for his family in their homeland.
But a personal run-in with ISIS thugs in his hometown and the destruction by a bomb of his house – in the strife-torn and ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa – convinced him he must leave forever and get his family to safety.
Sam witnessed the horror of the Syrian conflict up close when ISIS established a ‘checkpoint’ only a few hundred metres from his home. Syrian soldiers and anyone who spoke against ISIS would be held there and often executed.
He told of one incident when, hearing something from his apartment one night, he went out onto the balcony to investigate.
“I was hiding as I looked and saw a ute bringing people to this checkpoint,” Sam said.
“I realised they had two young soldiers, probably only about 18 years old, and they looked terrified.”
Sam said a ‘sheikh’ was then called to come and decide what to do with the men.
“The sheikh simply ordered that the group cut the soldiers’ throats,” said Sam, who did not want his identity revealed for fear of reprisals on his family still in Syria.
Sam said his community lived in constant fear as ISIS had zero tolerance for anyone who spoke out against them.
He remembers how the Naeem roundabout, once a busy intersection with cafes and restaurants, became a grisly display of executed bodies.
Sam had his own run-in with the group when someone saw him smoking on the street one day.
“They grabbed me and locked me up for five hours because they said smoking is ‘against God’,” he said.
“They said if they saw me smoking again, they would cut off my fingers.”
Apart from the threat of ISIS, Sam his family faced other dangers. As civilians living in a war zone, they almost became ‘collateral damage’.
He considers himself and his family lucky to be alive after their house was blown up.
“The bomb threw me across the room,” Sam said.
“My wife was in the kitchen, she was pregnant at the time.”
Sam’s father returned home soon after to find the house completely destroyed. Together they eventually found all the family members alive under the rubble.
That night, Sam took his family to Turkey.
The trip was a tense three-hour journey, with his wife heavily pregnant at the time.
“We drove as far as we could and then we had to walk a few kilometres to get across the border and we could hear guns being fired nearby,” Sam said.
“At one point the Turkish troops were firing at us. I’m not sure how we survived but we made it to a safe place.”
The family was eventually resettled in Australia in early 2016.
Now Sam, his wife and three children, all under four years of age, along with his parents are living in the Melbourne’s north-west and have started new lives.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist