When the Islamic State took over Abdelsalam’s native Raqqa city in 2014, the 60-year-old taxi driver was the married father of four children: three girls and a boy.
Today, Abdelsalam is living in the Ayn Issa camp for internally displaced people, 50km north of his hometown, watching the battles from afar and waiting to return. Three of his children are still alive, and he will stay in a tent until the Islamic State is driven out of Raqqa, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.
Earlier this year, Islamic State fighters raided Abdelsalam’s home in Raqqa city. They arrested his youngest son, Jasem, a 13-year-old. The family never saw him again.
Jasem was accused of homosexuality, his father learned one week after he was arrested. For nearly a month after that, Abdelsalam tried to reach his son, to no avail.
Abdelsalam believes that the charges against his son were falsified by an IS leader in the city who wanted to marry one of his daughters against her will.
As a result, as Abdelsalam tells it, his young son—who had previously been arrested and beaten on separate occasions for wearing jeans and a t-shirt—was detained, held for weeks and then thrown to his death from the third story of a residential building.
After the funeral, Abdelsalam suffered a heart attack from the stress, he says. Shortly after that, the father paid a smuggler hundreds of dollars to spirit the family out of Raqqa city in April.
Stories of loss and pain are everywhere in the remote encampment he now calls home, Abdelsalam says.
“Many people here have been hurt as I have,” he says. “Wherever you turn in the camp, you find some sad, hurt person with a heartrending story.”
Q: What happened to your son?
The Islamic State arrested Jasem at our house at 9pm on a Sunday this past March. One week later, we learned that they had accused him of homosexuality. I tried to get to my son, to see him, but they told me that visits were not allowed. For 25 days I tried to reach him, to no avail.
Then, Daesh [IS] members came to me and, laughing, told me that my son had escaped from prison. But they were lying. At that moment [I later learned], they had already killed him. They threw him to the ground from the third floor of a residential building.
Syrians displaced from Raqqa city in the Ain Issa camp on June 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.
Q: You said they killed your son because they accused him of homosexuality. Was this charge a surprise to you? Do you know who killed your son?
This accusation was to slander my son; they took him from the house in front of our eyes. But I know who set things into motion.
One of their bastard emirs [leaders], a Tunisian, wanted to marry one of my daughters against her will. He put severe pressure on us, and IS had arrested Jasem once before for his clothing. I refused to marry my daughter to those criminals. But all of them—Tunisians, Saudis, Turks, other nationalities—if they wanted to marry any girl they would do it, by force and at gunpoint.
All of the members [involved in my son’s arrest and execution] were wearing masks, and I didn’t know any of them. If I did, I would take my revenge myself. They killed my only son. He was 13 years old.
Q: What was your son Jasem like?
He was in the seventh grade, and really smart. He had taken a break from school after the destruction in the city [due to the latest coalition bombings].
When the Islamic State came into Raqqa city [in 2014], it was the biggest disaster because they are against science and learning. They take the children and teach them to carry guns and spread ideas that are against humanity.
We hid our children at home, afraid for them. Once, my son was flogged because he wore jeans. They said it was kuffar [infidel] clothing. Once, they beat him for wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
My son was easily frightened. I remember, when it grew dark outside he would get scared and run to the house.
Q: What happened after you learned your son had been executed?
Afterwards, they gave us his body. I buried my son and opened up the house for mourners to come. But the tragedy was too much for me, and I suffered a heart attack.
I went to the IS-run medical office, and doctors examined me. They told me that I was in serious condition, and should leave Raqqa as soon as possible for treatment which was not available inside the city. With the doctor’s reports, I was given permission to leave [if I left my family behind and returned within 20 days].
[Instead of leaving alone,] I worked to get my daughters out with me. If they stayed without me, they wouldn’t be safe from IS. If my daughter were married against her will, this would be zina [unlawful sexual intercourse] with the label of marriage, because the sharia requires the agreement of the girl and her family.
I paid a smuggler SP200,000 [approx. $933], everything I have, to bring out my daughters and wife with me. The smugglers risk their lives, and bring people as close as possible to SDF positions, or take them to the desert road. I left Raqqa in April.
Q: Before you left the city, what was it like for civilians? Could people move around easily, or are there checkpoints throughout the city?
People shut themselves up in their houses. You never know from which drain a Daeshi [member of IS] will pop out of or how. They choose shadowy places to keep out of sight, to watch and arrest anybody walking in the street, or to confiscate something. Their accusations are fabricated.
Q: Before this crime against your son, had you witnessed other executions in Raqqa city? How did you view these practices in the past?
I drove a small Suzuki vehicle for work. Once, I was heading to an area at a traffic circle, and came across a large crowd of people. I stopped my car and got out to see what was happening. IS members were slaughtering three young men, cutting their throats until their heads were severed from their bodies. It was a terrible scene. If I knew that was happening, I wouldn’t have stopped.
Members of [IS] are murderers. For them, slaughtering a person is like slaughtering a chicken.
Q: You volunteer in the Ayn Issa displacement camp now. Why did you choose to do that?
I decided to volunteer in order to serve people, and as a good deed to honor my son’s soul. We are simple folk; we don’t have any problems with anybody. I don’t have a problem with any political group or organization. Our lives are routine, work and home.
But this catastrophe, the Islamic State, happened. They kill people in the ugliest ways. May God avenge their victims.
Now I live with my wife and three daughters in the Ayn Issa camp, in a single tent, surviving on aid.
I will stay here, in this camp, until the city is liberated. As soon as Raqqa city is free, I will return to it, God willing.
Q: How is your family doing after this difficult experience? Is any support available to you, to help you process what you went through? Are you able to talk to other people about it?
Many people here have been hurt as I have. Wherever you turn in the camp, you find some sad, hurt person with a heartrending story. There are many people whose sons were executed, or their relatives, daughters, sisters, wives.
When the Islamic State came to Raqqa city, it started to kill us for the most trivial reasons.