News Middle East

Wednesday 13 November 2019

'I heard English accents... They asked for infidels'

Crucifixions, beheadings and life in Isil-held Syria as revealed by refugees fleeing the terror to Shona Murray in Beirut

Isil militants prepare to execute captured Iraqi soldiers held prisoner near Tikrit last year. Today the Iraqi army is pressing the terrorist group to regain possession of Saddam Hussein’s home town
Isil militants prepare to execute captured Iraqi soldiers held prisoner near Tikrit last year. Today the Iraqi army is pressing the terrorist group to regain possession of Saddam Hussein’s home town
Five-year-old Syrian refugee Abed in the Beqaa Valley, about 30km east of Beirut, Lebanon
Syrian refugees Jose and five-year-old Abed in the Beqaa Valley, about 30km east of Beirut, Lebanon

Shona Murray

'WE saw the slaughter with our bare eyes. We saw them beheading men in front of our eyes in the centre of our town.

"When we were escaping, there were heads on spikes on each route outside the city, just to remind us all of what can happen," says 39-year-old Umma Abed from Deir ez-Zor in Isil-held Syria.

Umma Abed and her four daughters and two sons fled Isil's control and managed to get to Lebanon late last year.

"They're not Syrians - I heard English accents; Tunisians. When they came first, they searched our house, and said 'do you have any infidels here?'

"I said no, we are just with God; we just want to live, and eat and save my children.

"My daughter fainted, she was so frightened; my son, Abed was crying".

The family are farmers, and owned five hectares of wheat - much of which they were eventually forced to hand over to the local Isil militants.

Isil captured the town of Deir ez-Zor late last July, during a series of lightning advances in Iraq and Syria. Its headquarters in Syria is in the city of Raqqa, next to Deir ez-Zor.

"We were working in the land; one day a missile landed 20 feet from us, and I knew Daesh [local name for Isis] was coming."

When they came, "there was no mercy", she says.

"I have daughters, and if one of them went outside without their face covered, their father would be flogged 80 times.

"This is how they used to make us wear our niqab," Umma Abed demonstrates with her headscarf, fully covering her face.

"The Isil female police would arrest us if we went outside without our husband or other men; they would have us flogged. If my son was sick, I couldn't take him to the hospital unless there was a man.

"One day I was with my son and husband in the town, and they had just crucified a local man, and my son asked me, 'what is happening, why are they doing this', and I kept telling him that it was a statue, and not real. He said 'no, it looks like a real man'.

"He didn't sleep for four nights afterwards, he was so scared. That man's crucifix was held very high, so that everybody could see. My other son wanted to study law, but they said nobody can study law anymore, Daesh says we all have to go back to the laws of when Mohammad was alive.

"My daughter used to study in a regime - Syrian - controlled school, she was in grade nine, but the female Isil police officers said the school was for infidels, and it was 'anti-Islam' for my daughters to be educated."

As well as the savagery meted out by Isil foreigners to her neighbours and family, Umma Abed explains that hunger also drove them to leave.

They now live in a one-room tent, on a campsite at the foothill of the mountains that separates Syria from Lebanon - just 40km away is Damascus. It is through this route her and her family took three days to find shelter.

"We are hungry again, but not as much as before. We need to pay rent in this tent; bread and water are expensive."

NGOs like World Vision and the UN develop sanitation methods for the thousands of refugees that arrive with nowhere to live. They also provide basic food items and clothes.

"It is good, but not enough. We need more food, and my children get sick from the cold and the hygiene in the camp.

Her five-year-old son Abed is in school in the Child Friendly Space (CFS), a designated area set up in various camps by World Vision, which allows children to get basic education while they remain as refugees.

"We just want to go back to our lands, and get rid of Daesh - they are not even Syrian; I don't think Syrians would do this to their own people"

Another alarming consequence of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis is the major rise in the number of child brides whose families can no longer support them, and in cases where a girl is married before the family flee, it is for fear that she will be kidnapped and forced to marry a 'foreign jihadi'. A UNICEF report from 2014 says that child marriages for Syrian refugees have doubled in the past year, with 32pc of recorded marriages occurring in cases where the girl was under 18, many of whom marrying men more than 10 years their senior.

Fifteen-year-old Maryam married her cousin nearly a year ago. The arrangement was made by both their families, before coming to the temporary refugee camps on the Syria/Lebanon border.

"My mother and my aunt talked to each other last year, and now I'm married.

"We needed to get married for security; there is war in my city, and we needed shelter.

"You know what happens to the single woman, they'll take her to the mountains and force her to marry a militant

"Of course I wouldn't have got married at this age; I would have been married at 19 or 20 if I had my choice.

"Luckily we got married and fled before I was taken, because in my area in Deir ez-Zor, this happened a lot.

"Marriage is hard; its full of responsibilities. My mother-in-law and husband keep asking me to clean and cook, and soon there'll be kids - it's a huge responsibility.

"My husband wants to have children in a year; he's in Beirut looking for a job now, it's been two weeks since I talked to him. I had completely different ambitions. I would have liked to been a painter, or farm wheat or cotton on the land we used to have, but that will never happen."

In Iraq, around 30,000 state security forces and Iranian-backed Shia militia are battling Isil militants and advancing on the strategic cities of Dour and Tikrit - the home town of Saddam Hussein.

And in Syria, the successful onslaught by Kurdish peshmerga forces in fighting off Isil is Kobane hasn't discouraged the so-called Islamic State from pressing ahead with its plans for capturing land in the Levant region for its so-called Islamic Caliphate.

The ongoing threat of an Isil onslaught is strong in Lebanon, particularly from the town of Arsal, just 130km north of Beirut, where fierce clashes between the Lebanese army, as well as Shia militant group Hizbollah and Syrian-based jihadists Al Nusra Front, and Isis have erupted more frequently in recent months. In early February, according to military sources, more than 1,000 Isil militants seeking to ambush Lebanese soldiers in the Syrian/Lebanon border, were successfully pushed back by the army and Hizbollah fighters in the mountains.

The threat of an Isil advance in Lebanon is strong, but the Lebanese are confident that the army, alongside Hizbollah, will defeat them.

A debate rages among the Lebanese regarding Hizbollah's interference in Syria, where it supports the Assad regime. Many believe that its this involvement that has drawn the ire of Isil, while others accept the Hizbollah line that its engagement is about protecting the border, pointing to clashes and presence of jihadists in Arsal as proof that without their offensive tactics, the Isil presence would be far more virulent.

Hizbollah spokesperson Ibrahim Moussawi is confident that the Lebanese army and Hizbollah's collaboration is sufficient to defend Lebanon from any lightning attack from Isil, similar to last year's takeover of Mosul in Iraq.

"They are on the border, and there has been many clashes with the Hizbollah resistance forces, and the Lebanese army.

"There are around 3,000 to 4,000 of them in north Arsal; but the Lebanese army has captured territories that prevents them from making any major offensives," he said.

Shona Murray presents 'World in Motion' on Newstalk

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