The damaged entrance of St. Mary's Church is seen in 2016 in Damascus, Syria. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)
The Raqqa Diaries is an intriguing document. The title suggests an epic adventure story worthy of a 1960s war film. The actual book is a great deal more down-to-earth and at times almost banal, which makes it all the more troubling to read. The book begins by giving some context to the translated diaries. For those who are still unaware, Raqqa in Syria is under ISIS occupation, “one of the most isolated and fear-ridden cities on earth.” Amongst the many prohibitions used to control and terrorize the population, citizens are punished by public beheading if they speak to western media. This makes the Raqqa Diaries all the more extraordinary when one considers the level of risk taken to commit them to paper at all, let alone to pass them on to the outside world. Samer (not his real name) is a young resident of Raqqa and until he found himself on a Daesh wanted list a member of an activist cell name Al-Sharqiya 24. It was through the BBC’s contact with this group that this dairy was born.
One of the difficulties with an ongoing conflict especially where such efforts are made to prevent information filtering through to the outside world is that compassion fatigue can set in very quickly. We know that there is a war in Syria, for many in the west it is all Syria will ever be known for; from time to time a personal story will burst into the news, causing temporary shockwaves, such as that of Khadiza Sultana, a British teenager who ran away to join ISIS, quickly became disillusioned and trapped but feared to escape when she saw a fellow jihadi bride being publicly murdered for attempting to flee. She was reportedly killed in an airstrike. However shocked the public are at the time, news moves on at lightning speed and these tragic faces are quickly forgotten.
It is my hope that Samer’s story will not be so hastily archived. He describes in chilling detail the day-to-day misery of living under the thumb of ISIS. A Muslim forced to undergo ‘Shia courses’ to be ‘born again’, he hurries to Friday prayers knowing that he will be brutally punished if he does not turn up or arrives late. His response to ISIS begins as confusion and disgust, quickly turning to horror and loathing as the atrocities mount up and life becomes impossible to bear. The power of the narrative is very much to be found in the way Samer reminds the reader that Raqqa was just an ordinary city before the arrival of ISIS people dropped their children off at school, went to work, dashed to the shops, enjoyed coffee and snacks with neighbors. The daily lives of the people of Raqqa feel so familiar that it forces the reader to consider how it might feel if a suburb of San Francisco or London suddenly found itself facing regular airstrikes, what it might be like to walk down a familiar street and witness a neighbor being crucified or a teenager hurled from the top of a building for engaging in a homosexual act. Samer’s story drags the reader into the heart of an otherwise distant conflict, forcing us to walk those streets, witness those atrocities, feel that fear.
Objectively, the writing is not particularly strong, the style so spare at times as to be off-putting. A woman is described crouched inside a deep hole. A masked man declares her to be an adulteress who will be stoned to death, then an air raid begins and they all run for cover. It takes a while for the full horror of what Samer has described to sink in, told as it is with the nonchalance he might have used to describe a woman waiting at a bus stop or smoking a cigarette. What happened to the woman is never related. The story moves on and she is left cowering in a hole awaiting an agonizingly protracted execution assuming she was not killed in the airstrike. It has to be remembered at all times that these are the words of a man writing under extreme stress, knowing that he might be exposed and executed at any moment. There is no time for the writing to be developed and honed or even for the writer to reflect upon what is happening and convey the rollercoaster of emotions he is surely going through. He is, in that sense, a war correspondent churning out the facts in any way he can with bombs exploding all around him.
In spite of the dry, cold style, there are moments that are intensely moving, such as the moment a young widow gives birth in a refugee camp, out in the open and without any medical assistance. I defy anyone to hold back tears reading Samer’s imagined conversation with the crying baby and the hope a new life offers in the most wretched of places. And it is the hope infused through the diaries that carries the reader through every grim, stark twist and turn of the book. As Samer concedes, having lost everything and watched thousands of others driven to despair: “All we are left with is hope.”
The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State
Translated by Nader Ibrahim and edited by Mike Thomson
Illustrated by Scott Coello
Hutchinson Publishing, 2017
Hardcover, 112 pages