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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The agony of liberation for teacher who risked his life filming Isil 

Tim Ramadan risked his life capturing footage of life inside, now safely in Turkey, he tells The National of the pains of Raqqa's liberation

The military defeats for ISIL have also hit their propaganda efforts (AP Photo, File)
The military defeats for ISIL have also hit their propaganda efforts (AP Photo, File)

Tim Ramadan risked his life capturing footage of life inside Isil’s so-called caliphate, his jittery videos gave insight into a notoriously unknown world. Now, safely out of Raqqa, he speaks to The National about how his troubles followed him out of Syria.

A devoted family man, Mr Ramadan was a teacher in Raqqa. His life changed when Isil rampaged across swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, and like millions of others, he was forced to live under the punishing regime. A fiercely strict interpretation of sharia law was enforced, and violent punishments were handed out on a whim.

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He had a number of close calls. One night an Isil fight got into his car, and told him to drive to the other side of town. After 30 minutes of driving, Mr Ramadan, who was convinced he was to be killed, was told to stop, the Isil fighter got out, and Mr Ramadan had merely been commandeered as a driver to take the militant home.

Now, after several years of living under Isil, he is free – at least nominally. He is working gruelling 14 hours shifts in a factory in Turkey, “it’s not as dangerous, but I barely make enough to feed my family”.

“I have lost my purpose, I want to continue fighting against all extremist ideologies, not just the Islamist ideology, but I’m too busy in the factory, I don’t have time. I want to them all bought to justice, but I have to look after my family first”. Such lengths did he go to in order to protect his family, even now, his wife knows nothing of his actions.

After militants took complete control of the city in 2014, Mr Ramadan and his family initially stayed as did many others, unaware of the beckoning brutality of a group whose actions would later been criticised even by Al-Qaeda. Despite trying to keep a low profile, he was never truly able to hide from their terror; “I was walking in the street with my daughter, she was about two, two and half years old, and she was afraid that an Isil fighter would see here, she asked me 'do we need to hide? because Isil might see my hair and punish me'".

He painfully recollects seeing a beheading in the streets. The gratuitous violence was impossible to escape and it was witnessing events like this that convinced him merely surviving was not enough. And so, with a little bit of training, he set about recording the realities of life inside the caliphate on a button camera hidden on his shirt. There was never any shortage of assumptions of the brutality imposed upon Raqqa’s residents but aside from Isil utopic propaganda, it was the dispatches of Mr Ramadan and a few like him, that grounded the assumptions in evidence.

Though Mr Ramadan is no longer in Raqqa, the nightmares of Isil are far from over for him; “I don’t feel the joy you might expect, my city has still been destroyed, and I had to watch many of my students be drawn into that ideology. I think about Isil all the time”.

After his daring escape from Raqqa, he spent one month in a camp for the displaced controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Though he is grateful to no longer be living under the control of Isil, his praise from the Kurdish dominated militia is limited. In the camps, men of his age were interrogated, their phones searched for evidence they may have been members of Isil, and they were forced to shave, he did not see them as “liberators”.

As Mr Ramadan puts it “the one who forces you to cut your beard is just as bad as the one who forces you to wear it long.” He adds, “[In Raqqa] they’ve replaced a radical Islamist ideology, with a radical Kurdish nationalism, they didn’t really liberate the city, there is just a new occupation.”