In Raqqa, they were exhuming a mass grave as we drove into the city. It was by the municipality, in the center of the town. A great gaping pit. A group of men in blue municipality uniforms at work removing corpses. A JCB accompanying them. The bodies – mostly skeletons but with a little hair remaining on the heads of some of them, were wrapped in blue tarpaulin sacks and left aside as the work continued. Some of the tarpaulin bundles were very small. These were the bodies of children, killed, perhaps by the Islamic State authorities, but just as likely by the coalition aircraft that had devastated the city prior to the entry of the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The stench coming from the pit was very intense, a pungent, indescribable smell of putrefaction. The men wore masks against ingesting the foul air. P. and I scrambled down the steep edge and began to photograph them as they worked.
‘Some of these bones are probably of Da’esh men, anyway,’ the foreman, who introduced himself as Jamshid, remarked. ‘They don’t care about graves and toward the end of the siege, they began to throw the bodies of their own men into these pits. It was summer and they had precious little medicines left in the city. They were frightened of epidemics, so they just threw the corpses into the mass graves and covered them up.’
One of the tarpaulin bags had been left open. From among the smaller ones. You could see in there the roundness of a skull and an eye socket.
Nothing of this has anything to do with rest. Such categories are useless for description. Matter is not at rest. One may come to understand in the contemplation of dead human matter the fascination for human sacrifice among very primitive peoples. They wanted to grasp what exactly was the difference, at the exact point that living matter is turned into this. This inert, other stuff. But there is no way to capture that. We only know that it is vastly, unutterable other. Some cultures see the dead as impure, unclean. Threatening to the living. There is something to this, too. Unspoken, we and the Raqqa municipal workers were united in a slight sense of intangible danger, of participating together into a mission into some dangerous borderland.
In reality, there was no danger. What was left of the Islamic State was boxed in far to the south. Raqqa was at peace. But we were located at an entrance point, like a gaping mouth, into the earth and that other realm. In which lies war, corruption, and disappearance.
It was nearly a year since Raqqa had been liberated from the Islamic State. The city was still full of rubble. It was a sullen, tense and silent place in the slow afternoon. Unexpectedly, wandering the city with my friends from the SDF, I felt a little like a representative of an army of occupation. Too obsequious smiles from tradesmen, who beckoned us into their shops. Strange, sidelong, insinuating glances at Mustafa Bali, my old friend from Kobani, resplendent in his YPG camouflage.
‘We had a 10 day curfew here, a couple of weeks ago, to clear out IS sleeper cells. They’re here. Those connected to the regime are trying to get organized, too. Some of them are people who were with us before. Who think the regime’s coming back. Graffiti, demonstrations, that sort of thing. No, nothing serious to worry about.’
That was ‘Haval Chia,’ the head of security in Raqqa city. He was a Kurd, maybe 40 years old, moustached, new to the notion of being part of the ruling authority. As were all the others. But they’d grown into it fast.
The regime was winning the war and it was waiting on the other side of the Euphrates. Waiting to ‘reunite’ Syria and wipe out all this and put back the flag of the Ba’ath party all the way to the Iraqi border. This was no longer somewhere in the distance. It was coming forward, though slowly. Like the armored suicide cars that IS used to operate at the start of the war.
Youd see them starting off, in the distance, from the jihadi’s lines. They weren’t in any hurry. They knew at that time there were no weapons on the other side that could stop them. They’d approach like they had all the time in the world. And you could run away or stay to face them when the explosion came. That was how the regime wanted people to think of it. Everything depended on the Americans. If they stayed, nothing could cross the river. But who knew what they wanted. They didn’t seem sure themselves. And not only to do with Syria.
The regime were already here, anyway. But closed in. In Qamishli city and Hasakeh. You had to be careful in Qamishli. The new confidence of the regime meant that they were asking foreigners for their I.Ds now. It wouldn’t help to show them the little bit of paper that the Kurds had given you at the crossing at Fishkhabur. They’d already picked up a couple of unfortunates like that.
We’d almost stumbled in there ourselves. Driving round Qamishli city with a driver from Kobani who didn’t know the geography of it. And who was tired and young and maybe thinking about something else. I’d noticed suddenly that there were crosses in the neighborhood and I’d heard that the regime’s area took in Christian areas. Then we’d seen the livid swastika type emblem of the SSNP and just a little further down a regime checkpoint and we’d turned around, very fast.
I had interviewed the leader of the SSNP a year earlier, in Damascus, under false pretences and they would have liked to talk to me.
This was how it was in Syria. Everything nice and normal, even saccharine sweet like a Feyrouz song in the morning, and then danger, from behind the curtain.
In Ein Issa, for example, at the SDF’s media center, I’d started talking in my kitchen Arabic to an Arab SDF fighter called Ali. The Arabs tended to be more immediately friendly than the Kurds and anyway I didn’t know Kurdish. Of course within three minutes we were fast friends and I gave him my Facebook name and we shook hands warmly as we left. Then on the way back to Kobani as the light was fading I started thinking about regime information structures deep inside the Kurdish territories. My Facebook profile revealed my residence in Jerusalem, in Israel. Ali, for all I knew, could be speaking to one of the various structures. Making a phone call that evening to let them know who was passing through. I was exaggerating, of course. Not all or many of the Arab SDF fighters would be in contact with the regime. And anyway I wasn’t important enough for something to be put on for my benefit so deep inside of Kurdish controlled territory. But it was a reminder that nothing was ever really safe. Even when it seemed like it was.
That night back safe and cosy in Kobani I’d told P. to get us a different driver for the next day. The following morning Mohammed Waisi arrived. In his mid-50s but looking perhaps ten years older. Mohammed was quiet, punctual, without airs. A Kurd from Raqqa, but now living with his family in Kobani.
He didn’t speak much, until we were turning a corner outside of Ein Issa and he remarked ‘that was where my family and I were caught by ISIS in 2014.’ There was a short silence that followed. I encouraged him to continue.
‘when ISIS came to Raqqa, our neighbors began to say ‘our state has come. Its time for you to leave.’ So the Kurds began to leave the city. I took my family to Abu Sora, then on to Kobani city. We had the idea of returning to Abu Sora because we thought Kobani would fall. We were travelling with two of my cousins and their families. About twenty of us in all. We were passing that corner when ISIS opened fire at us from the side of the road, so we had to stop.
There were about twenty of them. They ordered us out of the car and separated the men and the women. The women they put back in the car. They made us men kneel down with our hands on our heads by the road. They told us that we were PKK and that they were going to execute us.
Then they were distracted by a YPG vehicle that came upon the road and they all began shooting at it. They must have fired about 1000 bullets. So it turned back. We were all just waiting by the side of the road. They were going to kill us, but in the meantime an ISIS Emir had turned up. A blond haired guy, we thought he was a Russian or a Chechen. He asked them what they were doing. They said they had captured some PKK members and were going to execute them. The Emir said that we weren’t PKK but were just civilians with women and children. An argument started. All this while we were waiting by the side of the road, kneeling. Eventually, they agreed to call their commanders. It seems that they told them not to kill us so they put us back in the cars and took us to Tel Abyad.
There were basements in Tel Abyad where they were holding prisoners. One for men, and one for women. We were the first to arrive there. But in the days that followed, more Kurds came. There were maybe 200 people packed in down there. They gave us some soup once a day. The commander down there was a guy called Abu Quteybeh.’
Mohammed said all this while keeping his eye on the road from Ein Issa to Kobani. I told him we should talk more back in the town, so I could write down what he was saying, and he agreed. After that, there was silence as we covered the ground.
Back at Kobani, in the garden of the makeshift hotel where journalists and aid workers stayed, we sat with Mohammed Waisi and he continued his account.
‘After we’d been there about a week, Abu Quteybeh brought a captured YPJ fighter. He held her by her hair and showed her to us and he said that in two hours they were going to behead her in the square and we would be brought out to watch it. So two hours later we were all gathered there, and they brought her out and cut her head off. She had been tortured a lot and she didn’t resist. One man sat on her legs so she couldn’t move. The other one, on the top half. Everyone had to watch it. Even the children..’
We were silent for a bit, the three of us, and then P. said, ‘ISIS would do this,you know, to frighten people.’
Mohammed continued; ‘They took us outside once, when the jets were coming, and they made us stand next to a building, they stood about 200 meters away, and shone a light on us.’
‘We got out because my neighbor from Raqqa, who had escaped to Turkey, had a cousin who was an emir with ISIS, and when he heard that we had disappeared he contacted them, and so after a while we were released. They said they’d investigated us and found that we weren’t from the PKK. So they gave us three days to get out of Raqqa, after which they couldn’t ‘guarantee’ our safety, they said. We got through the checkpoints and to Bab al Salameh, then into Turkey and finally across the border into the KRG. We stayed there til ISIS was driven out of Kobani.’
There was silence and we sat around the table. And finally, ‘While we were out of Raqqa my house was bombed and damaged. Now the neighbors began to build and repair it and they are living there. We’re trying to get it back. I spoke to Haval Chia, he’s a relative of mine. But he told me to be patient as they don’t want to inflame problems between Kurds and Arabs in Raqqa. ‘
Mohammed Waisi told us his story in low tones and never became animated. Only later, in Raqqa city, when he took us to the site where his house had been, he began to weep and could not continue. Not knowing what to do, I have him a manly slap on the shoulder, of the type that army comrades give one another. It felt absurd then, as it sounds now.
Later, I asked him how the experience of all this had changed him. He thought for a moment, and replied ‘I don’t enjoy anything anymore,or even feel anything. I used to like taking my grandson to the market and introducing him to people and so on. But nothing really makes me feel anything anymore.’
We worked with Mohammed Waisi for another couple of days. We didn’t mention any of this again. After that I left and crossed the border back to the KRG.
Islamic State brought out the monstrous element that waits not that far from the surface in any human situation. It is important also of course to remember the specifically Arab and Sunni Islamic context in which it arose. What it has mainly left along the landscape and in the minds of people are a series of horrifying monuments to itself and to the brief moment when it exercised its insane sovereignty across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The Caliphate might have been short lived. But the forces that engendered it have not disappeared or been replaced by others. In north east Syria, there is a contrast between the tranquility that seems evident, the solidity of it which one feels, and the extreme fragility which your intellect tells you is surely the reality. In such cases, one should distrust ones’ feelings and emotions. For now, the land is quiet. But the war and the things that generated it are latent, and alive, and will manifest themselves again soon. In the meantime, the monuments remain.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer