Saturday 22 September 2018

Not safe... in Raqqa or Europe

Journalist Hussam Eesa publicised the evil perpetrated by Isil - now his life is on the line wherever he settles, writes Shona Murray

Damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP
Damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP

Shona Murray

One month ago while he was visiting the Netherlands, Hussam Eesa received a phone call from a friend in Germany who was looking after his apartment. He took a step backward and froze on the spot after hearing what his friend was telling him.

Inside his apartment, his friend said, was a note, written in Arabic on a printed photograph of Hussam. It loosely translated to "An agent for the Roman Empire - wanted to die - Hussam Eesa."

It was a death threat, and Hussam knew immediately who the sender was.

Since late 2014, the so-called Islamic State has targeted Hussam Eesa and his colleagues for their work on the online publication Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). After Isil took over Raqqa in Syria and declared it the Syrian capital of the Islamic State, RBSS has been bravely documenting the crimes and atrocities committed by the IS administration while living under its control.

RBSS shot undercover videos at public executions and wrote about the true horror of life under the so-called Caliphate. They document the poverty, cruelty and starvation suffered by families living under Isil; about malnourished children whose parents had to join long queues to get basic food supplies, and the lack of fundamental medicines and equipment in hospitals.

At the same time, Daesh (an Arabic translation for Isil, seen as a demeaning term) was using brilliantly-produced flashy propaganda videos extolling the glory and marvel of its newly created Islamic Utopia. In these, it criticised young men and women for co-existing in western countries or the lands of the 'kuffar' - a highly derogatory term for non-Muslims.

Journalist Hussam Eesa
Journalist Hussam Eesa

The videos lured thousands of men, women and families to migrate from western or 'crusader' countries to train, fight and die for Isil's depraved ideology following its sweeping successes in capturing a contiguous land-mass the size of Britain.

At its peak, Islamic State controlled 10 million people and ground that straddled the states of Syria and Iraq. Its very existence ripped up the international borders of the modern Middle East, created under the Sykes-Picot agreement in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.

This was not the first time Hussam or his colleagues had received such a threat from Isil. In October 2015, Hussam had fled to Turkey because Daesh was closing in on him and his group's work. He and two friends received a number of warnings that their lives were in danger, even though they were no longer in Syria.

The final reckoning came on the evening of October 29, when Hussam's co-founder in RBSS, Ibrahim Qader and their friend, Fares Hamadi, were murdered and beheaded in their own apartment by members of the Islamic State group. The group posted pictures of the killings and a carefully manufactured video delighting in their most macabre and evil operation.

It was for this reason that Hussam left Turkey for Europe, to settle in Germany. But it appears nowhere is safe. Last week I caught up with Hussam at an undisclosed location.

"My friend was at my apartment in Cologne - he had gone to use my play-station. He called me and said there was a death threat against me at my house. I told him to go to the police."

The police contacted Hussam.

"They told me 'don't go back to your apartment; stay out of Germany'."

They told him they wanted to find out who was responsible, but in the meantime he should stay safe and gave him some security advice.

"I felt like I had been shot when I heard the news," he said.

"I feel like I've lost the fight. I'm clearly not safe and I don't know where I can be.

"There are many people in Europe who support Isil and perhaps people have come from Syria to here in Europe to help Isil."

He painfully recalled when Fares and Ibrahim were killed by Daesh. They were living in the Turkish city of Urfa, while Hussam lived in Gazientep, to the near-east, both on the Syrian border. He was in close contact with Ibrahim and they continued to investigate and produce work for RBSS.

At one point, Ibrahim introduced an old friend of his from Raqqa, named Tlass.

Tlass was known to have joined Daesh, but promised he had since defected.

"Tlass knew Ibrahim from 2014; they worked together. Then Tlass joined Isil after they took over in Raqqa," Hussam said.

"We told Ibrahim not to trust him - not just Tlass, but anyone from Raqqa. It was too dangerous. It wasn't just me - we all told him not to trust anyone", said Hussam.

Tlass moved into the apartment with Fares and Ibrahim.

"They helped him with getting a job, with money. Ibrahim was a good man - he always wanted to help people, especially people who had no money or a place to live. Ibrahim was working with us and we were writing critical analysis against Isil."

That evening in 2015, Hussam was the last person to speak to Ibrahim.

"It was all about the work. He said 'I'll do it; anything for Raqqa; this is my mission' about one project we had.

"The next morning my colleague called and said Ibrahim was dead.

"First I thought he was joking, but he was crying and said 'they beheaded Ibrahim'."

Two or three people had arrived at the apartment and Ibrahim let them in. They killed both men.

"There is a short video of Fares on the ground with his head cut off, beside his body," said Hussam.

"They did another video of Ibrahim and showed them stabbing him to death. They stabbed him more than 80 times while chanting "you cannot defeat the Islamic State."

"For two or three days I couldn't talk or eat or drink. I had to move straight away for safety, but I didn't know what to do."

Weeks later, a German journalist and friend of Hussam helped him to apply for emergency asylum in Germany. He was given a two-year permit, now due to be renewed. Because he is no longer safe in Germany and due to European asylum rules, it is incredibly difficult for him to receive refugee status and start to rebuild his life.

"I know people here in Europe can't understand the refugee situation, and some believe Europe isn't able to help us.

"No Syrian wanted to come here; they had no choice. If there was a violent war in the UK or Ireland, nobody would want to stay there and die either.

"We lost family, friends, our studies or jobs and homes. Every day I think about getting home, but there's no future there."

At the same time, over 30,000 fighters from nearly 100 countries went to the Islamic State's territory in Raqqa, and Mosul in Iraq, to join and fight for Islamic State. Around 3,000 of these came from France, Belgium, Germany and the UK alone - around 13 of them from Ireland, according to security sources.

"A lot of Europeans went to Syria and are trying to come back; they killed us, they killed my people and destroyed our city," Hussam declared.

One of the most prolific of those was Mohammad Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, the British-Kuwati Isil recruit who personally carried out several beheadings including those of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

"We received the worst of the Europeans. Jihadi John came to my city and beheaded people, killed my people and was part of the group that crucified people.

"But I don't say that all British people are like this, and it's also true for Syrians. I don't say all Syrians are good people; some refugees are bad, but most just want to be safe; to learn the language of their new country and work."

The recent military offensive in Raqqa has driven Isil from the centre of the city. The cost in destruction and death has been immense.

"I am devastated when I look at the pictures of how Raqqa has been destroyed," said Hussam.

"The price of defeating Isil was to destroy Raqqa. The coalition and the Kurds could have been more careful when they bombed the city. More than 1,900 people were killed in the last three months; there is no bridge, no hospital, nothing left."

He recalls the worst days of living under Isil:

"On Paradise Square in the centre of Raqqa they put heads of people in the square after they had shot or beheaded them. I can't ever get those images out of my head. There was no court or judicial system; they accused them of being spies for the west or the Assad regime.

"Most of them were shot in front of us. A good friend of mine was shot in the street; executed for working for Assad; I'll never forget seeing the fear in their eyes."

Sunday Independent

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