Dispatches from Raqqa / Telegraph Magazine
A young Syrian man named Hamoud stares at his laptop. A video on the screen shows an illuminated night time scene. Three men wearing orange jumpsuits and blindfolds are bound with ropes to the tall, smooth trunks of trees. At first there is just the sound of cicadas, then three gunmen wearing military fatigues and black balaclavas step out of the darkness. They rip off the blindfolds, raise their pistols, aim directly at the prisoners' foreheads and fire. The camera homes in on one of the victims – a bearded man, his head slumped forward, blood soaking his jumpsuit.
Hamoud has watched this video many times before. He says nothing as he struggles to control his emotions. The bearded man was his father. Islamic State (ISIS) killed him because Hamoud belongs to a group of astoundingly courageous citizen journalists who have been exposing the atrocities that ISIS has inflicted on their home city, Raqqa, since declaring it the capital of its self-styled caliphate in 2014.
Finally Hamoud speaks. “In the end we are Muslim, and we believe he has gone to heaven,” he tells the unseen cameraman who has been filming him watching the video.
The exchange features in 'City of Ghosts', a harrowing new documentary about the group - Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) - that will be released in Britain on July 21. But it tells only part of Hamoud's grim story.
The 23-year-old had fled from Raqqa to neighbouring Turkey after ISIS discovered he belonged to RBSS. ISIS seized his father instead, and threatened to kill him if Hamoud did not name three RBSS activists in Raqqa. Hamoud refused to do so, knowing that the activists would be executed if he did.
He was compelled, in effect, to condemn his own father to death.
Raqqa, a dusty city of about 300,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates river in north-eastern Syria, was quick to join the uprising against President Assad's regime that began in March 2011, the year of the 'Arab spring'.
It was one of the first cities in Syria to liberate itself, and a clip in the documentary shows the triumphant rebels toppling a statue of Assad's father, Hafez Assad, in its main square. Thereafter Raqqa briefly became a refuge for those fleeing the fighting elsewhere in Syria, earning itself the nickname 'the hotel of the revolution'.
But Raqqa's euphoria was short-lived. Early in 2014 heavily-armed ISIS fighters arrived in their pick-ups, black flags flying, and seized control of the city from the Free Syrian Army.
The documentary shows footage of fighters armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades addressing Raqqa's citizens in Freedom Square. “Be with those who follow the religion of Allah,” an ISIS leader exhorts them. “Join us before we force it on you. Be with the believers before God's punishments are done unto you.”
The nature of the new regime soon became clear. As in some dystopian novel, the city was sealed off from the outside world. Hundreds of men were arrested. Women were forced to dress head to toe in black. Daughters were compelled to marry the foreign fighters that poured into Raqqa from North America, Europe and elsewhere. Children were sent to camps where they were brainwashed, indoctrinated and turned into child soldiers - one ISIS propaganda video shows an infant boy pretending to cut his teddy bear's throat.
Schools and hospitals closed. Power was cut off for days at a time. Smoking and drinking were banned, and the streets were patrolled by a female morality police called the the al-Khansa brigade. Arrests and executions became commonplace as all dissent was crushed. More grainy footage in 'City of Ghosts' shows bodies lying in a square with their severed heads stuck on the spikes of railings.
“This group was unlike anything the world had seen before. They painted our city black and shrouded it in darkness,” said Aziz al-Hamza, 25, a tall, thin, softly-spoken biology student. “We couldn't sit by and watch Raqqa being silently slaughtered.”
Hamza formed RBSS with four friends who had been fighting the Assad regime, and its membership quickly grew to 17. The group painted slogans proclaiming 'Down with ISIS' on walls at night. It covertly distributed anti-ISIS flyers. Above all, it started posting photos, video clips and reports of ISIS barbarities on Facebook and the social media. It engaged the jihadists on the digital battlefield.
“We had to turn the spotlight on our city and show people the truth about ISIS and what was going on in Raqqa,” Hamza said. “These were the first screams of RBSS.”
Many of the images it posted are used in the documentary, and they are not for the squeamish. They show executions, crucifixions, floggings, stonings, a bound man being thrown from a rooftop, someone's hand being chopped off. There are clips showing long lines of women and children outside soup kitchens as food runs out.
Matthew Heineman, who made the documentary, told me it was important to show the reality of life under ISIS, but “at the same time we don't want people to run out of the movie theatre because it's too gruesome. So every single frame, every single second, every single scene, every single act was argued about and debated and we tried to find a balance between these two things.”
The RBSS's posts were picked up by the international news media, whose own journalists could go nowhere near ISIS territory. They gave the lie to Islamic State's slick, Hollywood-style propaganda videos which glamorise violence, urge Muslims from across the world to enlist, and portray the caliphate – in the words of its late leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - as “a paradise where the rivers flow in the gardens of Eden”.
By contrast, the RBSS images were blurred and grainy, snatched from speeding motorbikes or camera phones hidden inside clothing. But they were all the more powerful because they conveyed such a tangible sense of menace and danger.
Enraged, ISIS set up checkpoints throughout the city. It searched people and houses for hidden cameras. It banned satellite dishes, closed down internet cafes and placed bounties on the heads of RBSS members.“Oh God, freeze the blood in their veins and stop their breaths,” a self-styled ISIS imam tells worshippers in a mosque.
Then, in May 2014, ISIS arrested a founder member, Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim, at a road block and found information about RBSS on his laptop. He was tortured and executed, and several of the group's members fled to Turkey or Germany to escape the same fate themselves. One, Ahmad Mohammed al-Mousa, was shot by masked gunmen in the city of Idlib as he was about to leave Syria.
Three years on, RBSS has 27 members - 17 men and women, all but one aged between 18 and 28, who work clandestinely inside Raqqa, and ten outside. For security reasons the internal group do not know each others' identities. Hamza will not say how they gather and transmit their images and reports – only that they are encrypted and sent in short bursts to thwart ISIS's roaming detection vans. Once dispached, the files are instantly deleted from their devices.
“ISIS either kidnaps, kills or disappears anyone it declares a media activist,” a masked RBSS informant identified only as 'Raqqa 12' says in the documentary. “They track our every move, every photo and every video we post. They are always trying to capture us.
“I certainly accept the idea that I can be murdered,” he adds, “but the most important thing for me is that the campaign does not end. This is our message to ISIS: 'If you think killing three or four campaign members will stop the campaign, it will not'.”
The external group edits out any faces or places or details that could betray the sender's identity, and delays publishing the images or reports for added protection. But the exiled activists are far from secure themselves, not even in Turkey or Germany.
In October 2015 an ISIS death squad killed two of them, Ibrahim Abdul Qadir and Fares Hamadi, in the Turkish town of Urfa. It cut their throats in Hamadi's apartment, and then beheaded them. “You will not be safe from the knife of the Islamic State. Our hand will reach you wherever you are,” it said in a video of the corpses that it posted on-line.
Two months later ISIS gunmen killed their mentor, Naji Jerf, outside a restaurant in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep a day before he was due to fly to France with his family to seek asylum. Jerf was a journalist who had instructed the RBSS activists in digital and personal security, and whom they affectionately called 'The Uncle'.
“Listen, you journalists fighting Islam and its state with your tongues and your pens,” ISIS warned in another propaganda video. “Stop fighting us or you will meet the fate of those slaughtered silently by the soliders of the caliphate. And don't think your presence in Europe will protect you. A sharp knife or a bullet in the head will be your fate.”
In other chilling messages on social media, ISIS posted the names and pictures of RBSS members and, in one instance, a photograph of the hallway of an apartment block in Turkey where an activist lived. “I liked the entrance to your home. I look forward to seeing you next time,” the text read.
Heineman – who had risked his life exposing the depradations of Mexican drugs cartels in his previous film, Cartel Land - told me he was a little nervous even being in the activists' company, so “omnipresent” did ISIS feel. “They're incredibly courageous people who have been through more than any of us could every know,” he said.
Hamza still receives regular death threats. ISIS publishes his picture on its websites and advertises the fact that he is living in Berlin. “They say 'we're going to kill you. We're going to behead you. Our lone wolves will find you and cut your head off',” he told me in a telephone interview from Los Angeles where he is promoting 'City of Ghosts'. Mindful of the much greater dangers faced by his RBSS colleagues still in Raqqa, he has refused police protection, but removed his name from the mail box outside his flat. “I try not to give my address to anyone,” he said. “I try to act normally and not draw attention.”
As a student, Hamza liked to party and hang around in coffee shops. During the uprising he was imprisoned three times and tortured by the Assad regime. He fled to Germany in 2014 when ISIS fighters came looking for him at his home. His brother, Moussa, subsequently escaped from Raqqa as well, but drowned at sea while trying to reach Europe from Turkey – Hamza still sends Moussa Facebook messages to say how much he misses him. Many of Hamza's other friends and relatives in Raqqa have been killed.
The strain shows. Hamza smokes heavily, his hands tremble, and one of the most moving scenes in the documentary shows him experiencing something not far short of a breakdown in his flat one evening.
He has no regrets, however. “We punctured a hole in the darkness,” he says in the documentary. “It is sad to lose friends and colleagues but I can say it's worth it,” he told me. “They can't stop us doing our work. We were able to shake ISIS, the most dangerous organisation in the world. We drew the attention of the international media and international community. I believe we stopped many foreign people from going to join ISIS.”
And so they have, but in one sense they have been too successful. Increasingly the outside world has come to see the Syrian conflict as a war between the Assad regime and ISIS – especially since ISIS began exporting its terror to Europe. The decent, brave Syrians who are caught in the middle, the original revolutionaries who were fighting for their basic human rights, feel betrayed and forgotten by the West, Hamza said. Indeed those that have fled are now viewed with suspicion in western countries, and President Trump – who appears to regard all Muslims as potential terrorists - would like to ban them from the US altogether.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the documentary shows a right-wing demonstration against immigrants in Berlin, with speakers denouncing Muslim refugees like Hamza and his colleagues as “pigs” and demanding their deportation.
“These guys have been through unspeakable horrors,” Heineman said. “For them to have to experience that antagonism on top of all they have been through, when they are actually allies in this fight against ISIS and extremism, was almost Shakespearean...It was preposterous.”
Heineman hopes that 'City of Ghosts' will help to change such misconceptions. “This issue of ISIS and Syria feels like another world to people (in the West),” he says. “It feels tragic and sad, and they get up in arms when there's headlines or photos or stats about how many people have died in Aleppo or how many civilians are currently being killed in Raqqa, but I don't think they truly feel it. It comes and goes. They see this and then they move on and have their Cheerios. So my goal in making a film about this is really to make you care. It's to give you a strong sense of empathy for what's happening there, and a stronger understanding on a human level.”
Hamza likewise hopes the documentary will show millions of people in the West that “Raqqa is not only ISIS, that there are civilians living there and a resistance movement and normal people who are forced to be there and it's not their choice”.
Not a lot remains of Raqqa after years of relentless bombardment by regime and Russian warplanes. What has survived is now being bombed and shelled by the US-backed Arab and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been attempting to capture the city since June. The RBSS has been reporting on their attacks too. It accuses ISIS of using civilians as human shields, and the SDF of using white phosphorous munitions which are banned under international humanitarian law. Hamza believes the SDF have killed even more civilians than ISIS.
At some point, possibly quite soon, ISIS will be ejected from Raqqa. But Hamza will not rejoice when that happens because his city will be in ruins, and ISIS will simply go elsewhere. “ISIS is an idea. It can't be defeated by weapons, shelling and airstrikes,” he says. Bombing simply reinforces ISIS's claim that the West is out to kill Muslims, he argues.
Hamza believes ISIS can only be truly defeated by exposing its depavity and discrediting its ideology in the way that RBSS has done. As he says in 'City of Ghosts': “We are sure that our words are stronger than their weapons and their arms. Either we will win, or they will kill all of us.”