“It was horror:” Syrian activist recounts life under ISIL in Raqqa and documenting executions in the city centre
Naim Square, one of Raqqa’s main roundabouts, became symbol of ISIL brutality
Beirut // Its name translates to “Paradise Square,” but the large roundabout in the centre of Raqqa came to symbolise the most brutal aspects of ISIL’s rule.
As the Syrian Democratic Forces routed the remaining extremists in the city, Naim Square, as it is called in Arabic, was one of the final parts of Raqqa to fall.
The roundabout was used to carry out a number of public executions, a hallmark of ISIL’s tactics to maintain control over populations in the areas of Syria and Iraq that they captured.
“It was horror,” said Mohammed Khebr, a 31-year-old Syrian activist who grew up in Raqqa and witnessed executions in the square on “three or four” occasions, and more than 30 executions in other parts of Raqqa and the city of Deir Ezzor.
Mr Khebr was present when rebels fighting the Syrian government captured Raqqa in March 2013. It was the first major city in Syria to fall out of government control, and Mr Khebr, who counted himself as a revolutionary, hoped Raqqa’s fall would be a turning point in the war.
Instead, ISIL ousted other rebel factions less than a year later, and Raqqa became the “capital” of its erstwhile “caliphate.”
“When ISIL captured the city they made it a black city,” Mr Khebr said. “They forced women to cover, and they wrote on the walls ‘We will execute anyone who opposes ISIL.’”
Naim Square was one of the places they made good on that threat.
Mr Khebr said the square before ISIL was a “very happy place”.
“It had a garden in the middle and families would go there. There was another park nearby where people would picnic and play football.”
He said the first execution he witnessed there came suddenly.
“There were four civilians – I believe they were civilians. I saw that many ISIL members came to Naim and they were preparing something,” said Mr Khebr. “They tried to force all the civilians in the streets and people who have shops on the square to come and see the executions.
“They brought the men, and they were blindfolded. They were accused of spying and taking photos of ISIL headquarters and buildings, and they warned people that if they did the same, they would be executed. They shot them in the head.”
As an activist, Mr Khebr had been documenting crimes committed by the Syrian government and rebel groups since 2011. He continued to do the same with ISIL.
“They announced the names of those four people and their villages … After that I communicated with people from their villages and the people there said this [the charges were] not true, and it was because they were fighting with the Free Syrian Army,” a rival rebel faction.
Mr Khebr left Raqqa three months after ISIL took control and travelled to Deir Ezzor, about 140km south-east of Raqqa. He continued his work after ISIL captured Deir Ezzor later in 2014, and estimates he witnessed more than 30 executions before fleeing the country in 2015. He now lives in Germany.
“For me, at one point, I felt that I lost my ability to feel anything,” Mr Khebr said. “I think I need psychological treatment.”
“I was very afraid for me and my family, and I tried not to let them see the executions.
“But two times they saw them – we were in a car, and they were doing the execution on the street.”
My family “didn’t know who was being executed, but they were worried that it would be me instead of him,” Mr Khebr said. “ISIL didn’t announce when they would do executions. They would do it suddenly. And because they would [leave the bodies on the street] for two or three days, sometimes we would have to see it.”
Before he fled Syria, Mr Khebr said he feared he would be arrested by ISIL for his role in documenting the group’s actions and for producing anti-ISIL literature.
Instead, the group showed up at his house for a very different reason.
“They just wanted me to design a logo for Al Furat,” Mr Khebr said, referring to one of the group’s media outlets.
“I designed the logo, and they loved it so much they offered me a job, a car, and house,” Mr Khebr said. “I asked them for three days to think about it, then I left for Turkey.”
Mr Khebr said the executions, which could be carried out for crimes as minor as smoking cigarettes, may not have been as effective as ISIL hoped.
“Many people who didn’t smoke started smoking just because ISIL prevented them from doing it,” he said. “I knew people who began to smoke as a form of protest.”
He also said the executions were likely to leave a legacy of further violence in eastern Syria, where tribal networks are an important part of the social fabric.
“In our traditions, we believe it is shameful to not take revenge,” Mr Khebr said.