Fatima, a 50-year-old Syrian mother, is subjected to threats and harassment from the ISIL extremist group and its supporters. Yet, she no longer lives in Syria, where the group controls large swathes of territory.
Since fleeing the Syrian town of Raqqa, ISIL’s stronghold, in September 2014, she has lived in the Turkish town of Sanliurfa, about 80 kilometres from the Syrian border. “Here, ISIL supporters are all around us. Back in our city and now here in Sanliurfa,” Fatima said.
“We don’t know where to go anymore.” When the uprising against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad began in 2011, Turkey opened its borders to refugees fleeing the violence. Rebel fighters were also allowed to organise, seek medical attention, and resupply in the country.
Many foreign fighters travelled to Syria through major Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. As the war against Mr Al Assad dragged on, rebel groups became more extreme and many eventually joined ISIL, which emerged in 2013, but Turkey chose not to crack down.
Not only did Ankara see hardline rebel groups as the most successful anti-regime fighters, there were also concerns that an aggressive policy towards ISIL would lead to attacks inside Turkey. However, that policy allowed ISIL to expand its presence in Turkey.
Last Monday, a suicide bombing killed 32 people in the mainly Kurdish border town of Suruc. Ankara accused ISIL of being behind the attack and began carrying out strikes on the group in Syria, joining the US-led coalition against the group.
Turkey is now countering the group, but previously “the knowledge that ISIL can activate its agents inside the country for terrorist attacks” constrained its options, said Kyle Morton, a Middle East analyst who has written frequently on the Syrian civil war.
An overt ISIL presence in Sanliurfa — in the form of supporters and both former and current fighters for the group — emerged at the beginning of 2015, according to Fatima and activists. Sukru Kirboga, a leader of the Turkish Arab community in Sanliurfa, said ISIL had a presence throughout all of Turkey.
He accused Kurdish fighters combating ISIL in northern Syria of pushing Arabs out of the area, flooding cities such as Sanliurfa with refugees. He said Arab members of ISIL probably entered Turkey with the refugees and formed cells within Turkey.
“That makes more problems, for us, Turkish Arabs. We’re definitely against ISIS, who even considers us infidels, but we are also (in solidarity) with our brothers and sisters in Syria who suffer from this ambitious dream of Kurdistan,” Mr Kirboga said.
Fatima left Raqqa after ISIL kidnapped her son, Mahmoud, a 32-year-old pharmacist who was also involved with the moderate Syrian opposition. The extremist group considers the opposition, backed by the West and Arabian Gulf states, to be “infidels” and has targeted them throughout Syria.
The group kidnapped him in 2013, before it took over Raqqa, she said.
Along with other women, she began demonstrating in the streets of the city, demanding that the militants release their relatives. “I felt like any mother losing her son in front of her eyes. I cannot describe the feelings. At first, I wanted to go and find him. I asked them what crime he did to kidnap him. I knocked on every door I know to help in releasing him,” she said.
At one protest, filmed and uploaded on YouTube, a group of women sit on the ground with signs reading “I want my son”. Later, a crowd forms and faces off with masked armed men. At the time, ISIL was still trying to gain support in Raqqa and did not attack the women.
Later, the militants told Fatima and the other women there would be consequences if they did not stop protesting. About nine months after ISIL established control of Raqqa in January 2014, Fatima fled to Turkey with her daughter Sana, 25, and her husband Abu Alaa, 65, who is partially paralysed.
Wanting to avoid the refugee camps already teeming with displaced Syrians, the family rented a room in Sanliurfa, but could not afford to move anywhere else. Mahmoud had been the family’s sole breadwinner. “We’ve tried [to leave Sanliurfa] but my father is sick in bed and there is no financial support to help us,” said Sana.
“All the support we have is from some relatives.” An aunt living in Saudi Arabia sends the family money for rent and basic expenses. However, to their surprise, they could not escape ISIL even in Turkey. Fatima said cars frequently drive through Sanliurfa with men inside calling out for people to join ISIL.
The Turkish authorities do not try to stop them, she said. Both she and Sana have also been approached by supporters of the group on Sanliurfa’s streets. “A veiled woman with a little child followed me once and asked me to cover my face. They were chanting out loud behind me and my daughter, saying, ‘Islamic State will stay’,” Fatima said, describing an incident last June.
Having lived in Raqqa after ISIL took over, she was scared how quickly the militants could become aggressive and said there was also the threat of kidnapping for people believed to be sympathetic to the moderate Syrian opposition. The family does not often leave their room and has few friends in Sanliurfa.
The living situation was particularly difficult for Sana, who wore a headscarf, but was intimidated when women on the street came up and said she must cover more fully. “We are a democratic state, if you do something bad we can’t just arrest someone just because he is an ISIS supporter or... plays ISIS songs in the street,” Mr Kirboga said when asked why local authorities in Sanliurfa haven’t detained ISIL supporters in the city.
Even though the family lives in fear of ISIL, Sana has not given up hope that her brother is still alive. Last March, she returned briefly to Raqqa in attempt to negotiate his freedom. She met a senior member of the group — a Saudi national. He said Mahmoud was dead, but offered no details of his death. “What do you want?” Sana said the militant asked her.
After she said, “only my brother,” he offered her an ISIL fighter as a husband. But Sana refuses to believe her brother is dead. She said ISIL has told other families that their relatives were killed, only to later release them from captivity.
“In Al Naiem square, I saw eight human heads on sticks. I held my breath for a second and started staring at them to see if my brother’s head was one of them,” she said. “I was terrified.” She also claimed to have seen children playing football in the street with human heads.
Raqqa has “turned into a nightmare”, she said. “It is like watching a horror movie. There were no women in the streets. This is not the city I grew up in, everything covered with black.” “Sometimes I wish it’s all just a bad dream and I will wake up from it soon.”
by Omar Al Muqdad