11 August 2013
Suad stood alone for hours in front of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) headquarters in the city of Raqqa holding a sign on which was written in bright colors “No to kidnapping, no to detention, no to theft in the name of religion.”
There were only a few passersby in the street which was cut off from both ends. One of them avoided looking at Suad and her sign. She notices him and turns her sign to face him. He lowers his head and walks faster to avoid committing the “sin of reading”, another passerby was a young man who dared to look at the sign under the watchful eyes of eight guards and only gave a “like” sign by lifting his thumb up.
“This is the sixth day..no no, maybe the seventh” Suad is lost counting the days of her solitary protest at the headquarters of the strongest armed faction in the city.
“I started my protest since the kidnapping of civil activists, who are renowned for their opposition to the regime, on the 24th of July, and because ISIS is the first suspect, I decided to protest in front of their headquarter.” Suad informs us. She did not mind mentioning her full name but the fear in her sister’s eyes prevented me from doing so.
Suad is a primary school teacher. She was fired at the beginning of the revolution two years ago because of her overt opposition to the Syrian regime and because of her participation in demonstrations demanding its downfall.
The idea of a solitary protest in front of the ISIS building “is not new to me” says Suad, “I’ve done it before when the city was under the regime’s control, and the first sign I lifted back then was (Do not detain me..Kill me before killing the children of Homs).”
With this sign, Suad stood a year and a half ago in the middle of “Tal Abyad” street, a crowded market in the city center, challenging the security presence.
“Two Sides of the Same Regime”
Suad decided to repeat her protest when she felt that “the country has become under the control of a new regime which should be resisted in the same way..with a sign we started, and to it we will go back” as Suad puts it. She asserts that her fear disappeared with the first bullet shot by the security forces at them in a demonstration more than a year ago.
In the pack of signs- which Suad keeps carefully after she comes back from protests- she has written “How did you enslave people when their mothers begot them free”, “We are the Syrian people, who are you?”, “A candle to light the darkness of your prisons – freedom to our kidnapped” and “We want all the kidnapped”.
The last sign provoked one of the guards and he yelled “you want all the detainees? They all are drunkards, thieves who break their fast [during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan]” and when she answered that she wants the honest ones, he replied from behind the mask “there are no honest detainees with us.” Suad points out that the oldest among the guards is not more than seventeen years old.
The province of Raqqa has witnessed increasing kidnappings this month starting with the kidnapping of Abdullah al-Khaleel, the then head of the province’s local council back, followed by the kidnapping of all members of local council of the village of Tal Abyad, the activist Firas al-Haj Saleh and activist Ibrahim al-Ghazi who started “our flag” campaign to paint the independence flag on the city’s walls after liberation [from the Syrian regime], and finally the jesuit father Paolo Dall’Oglio and Abu Tayf the commander of Omana’ al-Raqqa brigade.
The city’s activists have staged several sit-ins in protest of the kidnappings. The lastest was to demand the freedom of father Paulo who entered the headquarters of ISIS to meet “the Emir” for a prearranged appointment on Tuesday the 30th of July and has not come out yet.
Despite the warnings, Father Paulo insisted on meeting the ISIS “Emir”, asking the ones he met before the appointment to wait for three days before they declare his kidnapping because he will insist on staying there until he accomplishes what he came for. One of the issues he wanted to discuss with the Emir is that of the kidnapped people.
The Kidnapping .. of active activists
“Many friends warn me about dealing with ISIS because they are worse than the regime, and try to change my mind, but I am stubborn and insistent on protesting so the kidnappers know that the people of al-Raqqa are here and aren’t afraid of them” says Suad.
However the fear of the city’s residents and even the anti-regime activists can be felt. Some have prefered to remain silent and “postpone the battle until after the fall of the regime”, while others left it for the armed people to fight it out between themselves.
Everyday, while protesting, Suad listens to the complaints of dozens who have come to ISIS to ask for their kidnapped sons and daughters .”I am standing a meter away from them [ISIS members] and I wish that someone would come to them asking for a solution to a [mediocre] issue or a to complain about theft!”.
” I am sure they will harm her if she goes on protesting like they did to Firas and his brother Mohammad and others” says the wife of Firas a-Haj Saleh who has been kidnapped for weeks.
Suad’s friend who preferred not to say her name agrees ” I am on her side but am afraid she might be risking her safety and they will not respond anyway.” Suad doesn’t deny that fact “My sign won’t change their actions, I know, but I want to a deliver a message that this country is for its people’s and we are still alive” as she puts it.
Not all of Raqqa’s residents agree with Suad. One of her students who joined ISIS approached her one day and asked her “You taught us religion and manners, how do you stand here”? she replied “I didn’t teach you to be terrorists and kidnap those who disagree with you.” A loud voice with a Saudi accent ordered him to go back and shouted at her “go away, do not stay standing here.” ”Why? To whom does this street belong”? she replied and he answered “It used to belong to Bashar and now it is ours.”
Suad never stays silent to what they say. Being a woman gives her strength “surely if I was a man I wouldn’t be able to protest, they would have detained me from the first minute” says Suad asserting that she will keep protesting as long as the kidnappings continue.
Her friend says “We couldn’t prevent her to go out against the regime, she was never afraid of the regime so why would she be afraid now? We even made a photo album for the the page that will demand her freedom.”