Monday, 9 July 2018

The forgotten history of revolutionary Raqqa, and its deep wounds

 Mazen Hassoun:

 'Raqqa was liberated from the Assad régime in March 2013. The Free Syrian Army and the other opposition groups entered the city. After a battle that lasted only three or four days, the city was completely under the control of the opposition. From then until January 2014, we experienced freedom. We could speak our minds. But in January 2014, the arrival of ISIS changed everything. My cousin was executed on January 10. The FSA was driven out of Raqqa. All of us activists who had worked for the revolution and stood against Bashar al-Assad fled the city. I was among the first to leave in January 2014 when ISIS gained full control of the city and there was no one to defend us.

 My uncle wrote a book in Arabic about Raqqa’s revolutionary history, based on information and articles he has gathered in the past two years. Many people don’t know about it and have only heard of ISIS. I used to be part of a local coordination committee. We coordinated protests, covered the walls with graffiti and revolutionary flags. Around three hundred thousand civilians came out to one of our protests. We were among the first provinces to completely escape Assad regime’s control. At first, after the liberation, we had a lot of civilian organizations and movements for a new, democratic Syria. Most of the people demonstrating were poor or middle-class. We had built a lot of beautiful things before ISIS came to destroy them. Raqqa even used to be referred to as the “Capital of Liberation”.

 I used to protest and demonstrate against Bahar al-Assad even when I was just sixteen or seventeen, from the very start. My family had suffered a lot from the regime. My uncle had been in prison for twelve years under Hafez al-Assad. Another uncle was executed. I was raised in an opposition family, which is the main reason I joined the revolution.

 When ISIS initially appeared in Raqqa, they eliminated all opposition; anyone who rejected their rule was kidnapped: activists, doctors, soldiers. [Interviewer’s note: in April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, also known as ISIL.] They started attacking opposition factions in Raqqa claiming those groups were backed by Assad, including the major Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades [with whom they clashed in August 2013.]

 At the time, the opposition didn’t have much evidence that ISIS was responsible for the kidnappings and they managed to gain control over the city after an agreement with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). [Interviewer’s note:those were two large Islamist groups present in Raqqa at the time, but officially unaffiliated with ISIS.] This agreement is well-known to all Raqqa residents who witnessed the beginning of 2014. At first, there were only two hundred ISIS fighters. Ahrar al-Sham, on the other hand, had about two thousand members. I believe an exchange between the armed groups happened: Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from Raqqa, while ISIS withdrew from Idleb.

 I was actually watching the battle with ISIS at the time. I took my camera to film the events from the side of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS were surrounded in two buildings, with several kilometers of distance in between the two. That was around January 9, 2014. They were that close to losing the battle. But there are two bridges on the Euphrates river south of Raqqa, connecting the city with the rest of the country. Ahrar al-Sham and JAN had each held one bridge and suddenly they left the two, allowing ISIS reinforcements to come in from Aleppo, Idleb and the rest of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham and JAN withdrew shortly afterwards, leaving the remaining group, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa alone and unassisted. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, which was part of the FSA, was outnumbered and unassisted, so they eventually lost.

 Everyone was capable of eliminating ISIS in 2014. The organization was still very weak and didn’t have much military might, vehicles or money. Had the international community supported the FSA during that period of time, we wouldn’t see any of these tragedies today and the terrorist attacks [committed by ISIS] probably would not have taken place. But everyone left ISIS grow until they became a large threat.

 I saw Paollo Dall’Oglio in Raqqa but didn’t actually get to know him. Until today, we still don’t know what happened to him. We launched a campaign “Where are the kidnapped by ISIS?” More than a thousand Raqqa civilians have been disappeared by ISIS, including one of my cousins. We heard many stories about Paollo Dall’Oglio: some said they executed him days after the arrest; a former member of ISIS claimed to have seen him at the Euphrates Damn around 2015. I think that if the SDF will investigate, as they have arrested many ISIS members, they could learn the truth. In the case of those Syrians disappeared by Assad, relatives can bribe the government to know the truth, but not with ISIS.

 The civilians’ greatest fear is that Raqqa could still fall to Assad…We’re hearing about this possibility ever since Assad lost control of the city. If Russia agrees with the US that the SDF should leave the city, we will lose it and Assad will seek revenge from the citizens.'

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