Raqqa under ISIS: Resistance and Perseverance
12 July, 2017

Resistance and personal dedication to documenting and reporting human rights atrocities is what pushed Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza to co-found the organization Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RSS, or RBSS) in 2014. The organization covers local events with about 10 reporters in hiding. They aim to highlight human rights violations in the Islamic State.

U.S.-led coalition forces are posed to seize Raqqa, a stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. The fight has entered a critical stage as coalition forces has just breached the Raqqa wall.

The journalists for RSS risk their life. Some had to go to Turkey, but after further threats, al-Hamza moved to Berlin. Prior to the war, 25-year-old al-Hamza was a chemistry student. With al-Hamza, Hromadske looks back at Raqqa under the Islamic State.

Can you explain the nature of your work, where you are from, how you report from Raqqa, what is your media?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: I am from Raqqa, from Syria. I am working with the organization, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, to report the news from ISIS territories. We started our work in 2014 when we saw that there was only ISIS propaganda as media, so we decided to take action in that time, because no one is allowed to work in ISIS territories. ISIS had prevented all international media from going there. And with a few of my colleagues...we were able to...[form] the first team, reporting, taking photos and videos from inside…[and] publishing…[on] social media and other platforms.

ISIS is committing many human rights violations. The situation is not that good and getting worse day after day. Civilians are the only victims of the fighting between both sides.

A lot of people probably don’t know what relations are like between the local population and ISIS, particularly in Raqqa. Can you tell us about it?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: Many people don’t have enough of an idea about relations between locals and ISIS but I can say that less than one person from the civilians have joined ISIS, even though they [ISIS-ed.] are living in the best conditions. Joining ISIS means that they would get whatever they want: they will get money, salaries in dollars, they will get cars, houses for free, they will get six women, whatever they want. But even with all of those things less than one person joined ISIS. That means that most of the civilians are anti-ISIS. They can’t do anything to show that they are anti-ISIS because they will be sent to death directly. But to stay home and not join ISIS is one of the best [forms of-ed.] resistance in the world in this territory.

You mentioned that no one has a plan for what to do if ISIS is defeated. How do you see this? What can be done besides the military campaign?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: International governments, the international community and international NGOs should think about a plan for the day after defeating ISIS because the people who have been living under ISIS have spent three years besieged or surrounded with ISIS propaganda and ideology and it will be a bit hard to explain to them what happened. In Raqqa there is no TV, there are no satellites, ISIS closed all the internet coffee shops so the people are besieged only with ISIS propaganda. They need to have a new kind of education, emergency aid, they need to have the many things they have been missing when living under ISIS control.

Who are the other groups and what is happening, is it just ISIS there who is harming people? What happens to you if you report on things other than ISIS?

The People's Protection Units in Raqqa. Photo credit: EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: Basically there are many groups who are fighting in Raqqa right now [May 2017–ed.]. There is ISIS and on the other side there are some militias called YBJ or STFR who are supported by the US, who is leading the campaign against ISIS. At the same time they have been controlling many areas and they have committed many human rights violations against civilians. At the same time there are Russian airstrikes that are killing civilians daily in Raqqa, in the name of fighting extremism or terrorism. But most of the airstrikes are killing civilians, they are not careful. They don’t care about [whether-ed.] they are killing civilians or ISIS. And there are many other groups who are also involved. There are several groups fighting and they are all committing human rights violations.

Photo credit:  Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

If you write about that, what happens? You said that you have been accused of being everybody’s enemy or everybody’s ally when you do something besides reporting. And how does ISIS treat you as media online?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: We are getting through it daily because of our role, because we are reporting about all sides, we don’t stand with any side. We are reporting against any group or any side that is committing human rights violations against civilians. That was a problem for some people. Some supported us for one side. So once we were talking about the side that they support they started to throw many rumors...that we are liars or enemies. But when we are talking about the side they are fighting they see us as heroes. They just don’t know what they want and hey want us to only talk about one side and not mention the other side. So for us it has been so hard to do that thing. But that thing fit our work, it fit our fond, but we decided that we will complete our fighting for the humans, for the locals, for the civilians who are besieged in the city.

Photo credit:  Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

You even had issues when for instance having your Twitter or Facebook hacked. How do you deal with these organizations, when you don’t get much support. What’s happening?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: This was when we started, during the first two years of our work. As a small organization, we started in 2014 with 27 people, most of them between the ages of 18 and 28. We didn’t have a lot of experience with digital security or IT. We started with basic things like a Facebook page and a Twitter account. But later on we faced not just ISIS trying to stop our work but also Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Our accounts and our pages were closed several times and it was so hard to get in touch with those platforms to explain to them what we’re doing and to let them see our reports, or to let them see some articles or interviews or reports that were talking about us. It was so hard but in the end we were able to save all of our accounts and we don’t face this problem any more. But it was so hard to reach out at that point. Basically I got to the point of saying I swear we are not ISIS, but it was so hard to get in touch with them and explain this to them.

Photo credit: EPA/STR

How is it for you now being based in Berlin and in Germany? The German population compared to a lot of Europeans is kind of welcoming the Syrian refugees, but not all. I know you have talked to bigoted people, what are the challenges for you being in Germany today and being in Europe?

Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza: It’s been a challenge because it is a new country, a new environment, different culture, different traditions and to meet many people with different ideas and backgrounds. Fortunately there were many people who welcomed refugees, who were welcoming, nice people but at the same time there were some people who were anti-immigrant in general. So I couldn’t stay silent and watch those people who are organizing demonstrations against immigrants and against people, because it was not only about the immigrants but about all the foreigners. They don’t want any foreign people to come to their country. They think they are the best people in the world. So I started to talk with them, to explain to them that all humans are the same, that no one is able to choose his father or mother or his country or nationality and that everyone can change. I started to explain to them about myself: that I was that teenager who didn’t care about anything but then I became involved in human rights. And I was able, after a long conversation with many of them to convince them because they were surrounded by a circle where they were getting their news from some people, some sources, so they didn’t have several or different sources of information.