“They have reduced houses, palaces and churches to ruins. They have damaged hospitals, barracks, universities and unleashed violence against thousands of unarmed people. They have destroyed lives, they have annihilated our hopes.”
That’s how Amal, just 15 years old, sees the war within which he has lived for more than five years. He lives, with his surviving relatives, in al-Hasakah, a city in the northeastern corner of Syria.
He lives in the basement of his old home, not because of the danger of bombing that now everyone has gotten used to, but because the old house was completely razed to the ground. And now, what was the floor of the original house has become the ceiling of the new one. In the al-Hasakah governorate, especially in the Jazira Canton, it all started with an offensive launched in February two years ago by fighters of the Islamic State, who have conquered at least 200 villages.
And at Tell Brak, one of these villages between al-Hasakah and Qamishli, the fighting between ISIS and a militia of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) started. Despite the isolation within the southern corridor of the provincial capital, the jihadists have laid down the law.
“At first, we only watched ISIS’s barbaric acts on television. Deaths, torture, violence were our nightmare every night. Then they arrived in our streets, in our bakeries, in our mosques. And suddenly there was no electricity, no medical care, no water and no food supplies, such as rice, sugar, pasta, nor gasoline,” Amal explains with a disarming precision. Through the network of Kurdish aid organizations, services have been provided with great effort. The Kurdish government has responded to the arbitrary suspension of electricity and the chronic shortage of drinking water with widespread distribution of food, medical supplies and water.
We talked to Amal during the Eid al-Fitr, the feast that follows the sacrifices of the fasting Ramadan month, while most of the shops of the central souk opened their doors with lights and colored drinks. People stroll around the souk, and they look almost inexplicably not intimidated. “We must continue to do those things that help us to make life as normal as possible.”
But what is normal in Syria?
But what is normal in Syria? They lost all the things most of us take for granted every day, from carelessly turning on the faucet and getting clean water, to going to a shop to buy milk. “And yes, I miss the most trivial things,” Amal says. “A hot shower, a bottle of Coca-Cola, going to school on my bike.”
The first to flee from al-Hasakah were the Christians, who lived in the area for decades. Nearly 4,000 families left their homes and daily lives. In a few days, the southeastern neighborhood of al-Nachwa was deserted. One hundred twenty thousand people have sought refuge in surrounding towns and villages, according to data reported by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“I slept in an open field under an unbearable heat. During the day, however we got refuge in churches, monasteries and schools,” recalls Sarah.
“I prayed, but I did not know what I was looking for with my prayers. Part of me was angry, another part was ashamed for the poor conditions I forced my children to go through.”
Today they continue to live in a maze of administrative processes. They live under warring authorities, afraid to cross into a territory governed by a different authority. And where the two authorities overlap, you must stay out of trouble.
“Al-Hasakah is divided between the Kurdish militia and forces loyal to President al-Assad. I live in a neighborhood controlled by the regime forces, and I avoid passing through a block controlled by the Kurdish militia because they would force me into compulsory military service,” says a frightened Abood, 19. He is a taxi driver, and he uses secondary roads and paths not marked on maps to move between al-Hasakah and Qamishli. “I have two drivers licenses: the first one issued by the Syrian government, in case, and the state police stops me, and the second is for the Kurds, in case I get checked by Asayish, the Kurdish police.”
Yana contributes to Abood’s story. Her parents own a small shop in one of the unfortunate areas in which both the regime and the Kurdish authorities have influence. “We paid the monthly government taxes and, surprisingly, a weekly fee to the Kurdish authorities to clean the streets.”
In August 2015, after prolonged fighting, the Kurdish forces have officially declared the liberation of al-Hasakah from ISIS insurgents. The campaign was conducted on three phases. “In the first phase, we surrounded the villages occupied by Daesh,” explains Felat, a commander of the YPG. “The second phase focused on cutting supply routes, denying the fighters freedom of movement. The third phase is the progressive recapture of neighborhoods from the suburbs to the center.”
“When the al-Hasakah-to-Shaddadah road was closed by the Kurdish army, we felt trapped in the middle of a deja vu. The fear of the siege has persecuted and oppressed us, while there were growing shortages of food, water and medicine. We were willing even to escape on foot through the steep mountain paths,” says Tejaw, a 25-year-old father of four children. “Even the Qamishli airport was inaccessible. Who could fly? Only those who had acquaintances who worked for the Syrian regime, in particular those working in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. If you had these connections, you could get a ticket for a cargo plane flight for $160.”
Although fewer civilians are willing to discuss the current situation in Syria, Tejaw let us into the tent where he lives in the al-Hawl camp, east of al-Hasakah, and he begins by saying, “The regime’s supporters feel free to speak only in areas controlled by the regime and the opponents speak from the refugee camps.” This is his eloquent simplification.
“What were people dying from when the Caliphate stole our homes? Hunger, poverty, murder, rape, arrest, slaughter. ISIS does not show mercy: It doesn’t matter if you are elderly or young, man or woman. Every drop of blood spilled by our people, every wall that carried stories of generations destroyed, every old district swept away from the maps represents a lost history that will never appear in any book,” he continues.
The border with Turkey and Iraq
Al-Hasakah has always been one of the main objectives of the Islamic State. Considering the close links among Arab tribes on the border between Iraq and Syria, al-Hasakah is still the easiest way to further the trans-frontier expansion of the black caliphate’s possessions.
In the neighborhoods of al-Hasakah, the gradual reopening of markets, shopping and local activities, the restoration work in state institutions and in the security sector faces a city that has yet to come to terms with demolished buildings, houses, meeting points and unrecognizable streets.
Humanitarian efforts are underway to support over half a million of internally displaced people from neighboring cities, such as Deir Ezzor, al-Raqqa and Aleppo. The United Nations Program for Development has allowed at least 400 women to return to work and often the materials produced are distributed to residents in need, from clothing to blankets.
“ISIS has always imposed extensive restrictions on personal freedoms. All women, including girls, were required to wear the niqab, the full veil, or risk public stoning. No colorful veils, gloves, bags, shoes and accessories. The city was a giant prison. Internet at home was forbidden and most of the public networks were interrupted. Mobile phones were banned, and no one was allowed to smoke cigarettes in public places,” recalls Tejaw.
“We had to pay taxes to the caliphate officials, and also an extra voluntary gift of 2,000 Syrian pounds (about $10) was scheduled. People could not afford to buy anything. Many shops have closed and the price of fuel and gas increased five times. Some of my friends have collaborated with the militants for more food and fuel rations. Fifteen kilograms of flour and 10 kg of rice were the amounts a family close to ISIS received.”
Police and street cameras were the eyes and ears of ISIS in the conquered city. Propaganda and indoctrination were everywhere. From school programs to military recruitment. In schools, the teaching of history and law was banned. The classes were segregated, boys in one group, and girls in the other. ISIS militants patrolled primary and secondary schools, interrogating students on Islamic law.
Al-Hasakah had 20 hours of electricity a day, which was later reduced to eight, then six, then less than two. Each district of the city had water once a week. There was no food, the hospital had no doctors or nurses, and not even basic medicines could be found, Tejaw says.