This 17-year-old boy was a bread seller on the streets of Raqqa, Syria, a city still under ISIS's absolute control.
The boy, Samir, didn't just sell bread to Syrian members of ISIS, though. “I sold bread to Germans, Algerians, Pakistanis, Afghans, and even Americans,” he tells Independent Journal Review.
Samir was born in Raqqa in 1997. Before the rise of the Islamic State, he liked to swim, play soccer, and smoke cigarettes. It was his habit with smoking that first got him in trouble with ISIS.
“I was sent to the jail for smoking. They asked me to identify the merchant who provided the cigarettes, but I wouldn't tell them, so I was beaten. I was in the cell with nine other people. We were released the evening of our arrest,” Samir said.
Samir, now 20, talked about how ISIS brought hell to his city. He listed off some rules that were imposed.
“No wearing of tight pants. You could no longer wear your hair the way you wanted. You could not shave your beard. You couldn't smoke, you couldn't drink alcohol. They closed the restaurants and all the clubs. The first time you broke the law, you would get a warning. If you did it again, you would be arrested,” Samir recalled.
IJR asked Samir about ISIS's treatment of women. He said, “All women had to be fully covered. If a woman broke the rules, Al-Khansaa, a female police unit, would hurt them. If they slept with another man while married, the woman would be stoned to death.”
But that doesn't scratch the surface of the brutality Samir has seen. He shared a horrific example of ISIS's disregard for human life:
“They took about 100 decapitated bodies, and they hung them on a fence. The bodies stayed there for a week. The only reason the Islamic State removed them was because of complaints about the stench.”
He spoke of seeing sex slaves on the streets. “ISIS took women from the Yazidi sect as slaves and sold them to their fighters. I saw many covered women following ISIS fighters on the streets — they were their slaves.”
But what did Samir do for recreation? “Books were banned. TV was banned. Video games were banned. We couldn't go to the cinemas. We mostly sat inside our homes playing cards and talking about what the conditions we lived under in Raqqa. It was best to stay inside and away from everything. It was safest.”
But even though he stayed inside most of the time, it didn't stop ISIS from accusing one of his friends of being a spy. “They said my friend [Boshr Alsad] was a spy for the Coalition. ISIS said the charge was ready. He was crucified on a pillar.”
Samir shared a photo of Alsad with IJR.
Samir told us that ISIS would accuse people of being spies all the time. “They could just decide you were a spy and then you would be killed.”
We asked Samir about the treatment of Christians. “Many Christians left the city. For those who didn't leave, ISIS forced them to pay a tax. They broke the cross on one of the churches in Raqqa. We wanted to help put it back, but ISIS threatened us. They turned the church into a base for operations. Christian women who would not wear the niqab were forced to leave Raqqa, too.” the 20-year-old survivor said.
Samir further described a city where ISIS had total oversight over everything. “They would have five to 10 guards at every checkpoint to come into and leave the city. It was forbidden to have your cellphone out because they were afraid that you would send coordinates of their location for airstrikes.”
He talked of the executions in the public square at the hands of ISIS:
“I saw people get their heads cut off. Usually, they would kill one to two people a day, but sometimes there weren't any people killed. Every time someone was killed, they left their body out for at least a few days for the people to see.”
When it came to stealing, ISIS wouldn't just cut off the accused's hand, either. “They would cut his hand and then hang the hand on his neck and force him to walk the streets,” Samir said.
But what did ISIS fear most? The educated. When the terror group took over Raqqa, they shut down the schools and universities. Samir was taught in private. If caught, he would have gone to prison, perhaps worse. He detailed the experience and how he stayed off ISIS's radar.
“We would pay the teacher in secret. He would spend a day in my house and a day in my friend's house and a day at my other friend's, so we did not raise any suspicions,” Samir said.
But ISIS was about to get much more involved in the personal lives of Syrians in Raqqa. A year after taking the city, they were now forcing people as young as Samir to join them. That was the last thing Samir and his family wanted, so he plotted an escape. It didn't take long to make the decision: he would be smuggled out of Raqqa.
At the time, being smuggled out of Raqqa cost $60, or 12,860 Syrian pounds. “I was smuggled on some roads ISIS did not know about. I was terrified after we left. I knew I couldn't go back or ISIS would kill me. It was about two hours of a drive until we reached Manbij. From Manbij, we were able to wait for several hours and then cross into territory that was not under Islamic State control,” Samir said.
From Manbij, Samir made it to Turkey, where he resided for a few months until making a trip, via boat, to Greece. The trip ended without incident, and after a little over an hour, Samir arrived on the Greek island of Mytilene with many others.
From Greece, Samir went to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and his last stop was Germany. When asked about what ISIS is the most scared of, Samir said:
“Losing control. Without their control of the media, TV, radios — they are weak. They cannot last. We were scared at first when we saw the first videos of Islamic State killing people, but then we see this is their source of power. They are very scared of losing this control.”
Hamad, 27, was a civilian activist when ISIS invaded Raqqa, which made him a threat from the very beginning. Hamad spoke to IJR about how ISIS views activists. “They find all intellectual people to be threats. They murdered many of the activists, the educators, and media personalities in Raqqa,” Hamad said.
The activist continued, “They banned chemistry and physics. They closed all churches. And forced the Christians to pay tribute to them.”
Hamad's activism didn't end when ISIS sieged the city. When the terror group removed the cross from a Christian church, Hamad was part of the group that took a great risk and tried to put it back on the church. “They chased after us. I managed to get away. But two of my friends were captured.”
And now ISIS knew who he was and what he did. “My friend who was captured, his father called me. He said they knew I did it and that I needed to leave the city.”
Leaving was a matter of survival for Hamad. “I left my house in the middle of the night on foot. It was late, so it was easy to remain hidden. I walked a little more than six miles until I reached a friend's house. He let me use his motorcycle. After 43 miles, I was at the Turkish border.”
To this day, Hamad is wanted for execution by ISIS.
Both Samir and Hamad may have managed to make it out of the hell that is Raqqa, but many of their family members remain in the city.
Since Samir escaped, the demand for leaving Raqqa has increased, and the smuggling price has gone up. Samir said it's around “$300 now” or the equivalent of one month of salary for a Syrian. ISIS has increased the security in the city, too.
But he yearns to see his family again someday. He misses them dearly and awaits the day they can all be together again. But for now, he watches from a distance, hoping that ISIS will fall and that his family will survive them just as he has.
Editor's note: Samir and Hamad are pseudonyms. We did not use their real names because they still have family in Raqqa, and ISIS monitors everything there. Revealing their identities and their faces could put their life and their family's lives in danger.