Living under ISIS rule — and then escaping it

America Abroad
Mezar Matar escaped Raqqa in 2013 and he now lives in Istanbul.

Syrian journalist Mezar Matar escaped Raqqa in 2013 and he now lives in Istanbul.

Salam Rizk

Syrian journalist Mezar Matar knows what it’s like to live in fear in a city under ISIS control. He also knows what it’s like to escape.

In Matar’s hometown of Raqqa, Syria, he witnessed ISIS fighters take over the city in the summer of 2013. He saw them violently enforce Sharia law, seize homes, close schools and stage elaborate public executions. He watched as they punished women who weren’t wearing the Khimar, flogged anyone who was on the streets during prayer times and beat people for smoking cigarettes. Matar saw ISIS arrest his friends, abduct his brother and recruit Raqqa’s own children to join ISIS’ ranks.

Over the course of a year, Matar saw Raqqa — which had only just been liberated from the Syrian government in March 2013 — devolve from what he described as a “free city,” complete with citizen activists and local councils, into one paralyzed by fear.

Then on Aug. 13, 2013, during a battle between ISIS and forces from the Free Syrian Army, ISIS set off a car bomb.

“It was on that same day my brother, Mohamed Nour, disappeared, Matar said. “He was filming in the same location of this battle. All we found was his burned camera in the explosion site, but we couldn’t find any trace of him — not in the bodies at the site of the explosion, neither in the hospital. We also looked through the corpses at the morgue and through the injured at the hospitals.”

Matar said that a few days later he found out that Nour had been abducted by ISIS. After the explosion, Nour apparently tried to escape, but ISIS had the area surrounded and caught him.

Mezar Matar

Mezar Matar in Raqqa, Syria.


Ali Shalash

Matar says the explosion scared the entire city; ISIS was emboldened.

“They covered the city in black. They painted most of the walls black and would graffiti the walls with their slogans and expressions,” he said of ISIS’ growing control.

But the intimidation didn’t stop with paint.

“They began to scare people with strict and severe punishments for those who violated these laws. No one could get away from punishment,” Matar said, adding that the ISIS patrols began to resemble the harsh “moral police” in Saudi Arabia.

ISIS also targeted children, brainwashing them.

“The fighters would see children on the street and sit and play with them. They would give them money. They would buy them food,” Matar said. “They would try taking them to the mosque, and after prayer they would do storytelling sessions where they would speak to them about jihad, heaven and the virgins.”

This manipulative kindness was enough to lure many children away from their homes and into ISIS training centers, Matar said. But to keep adults in line, ISIS relied on fear.

“[ISIS] terrified everyone in a massive way,” he said. “They even organized screenings on the streets where they would play videos of the executions and killings.”

Though ISIS instilled terror in Raqqa, there were still some demonstrations against the group happening in late 2013. Matar was covering these anti-ISIS demonstrations in the city, filming protests and producing reports, and it wasn’t long before he became a target himself.

“I received threats from them. I didn't know when I could leave. My situation was a little confusing. I was afraid everyday, when I would walk home, I would fear from the cars that drove by me – I was scared they would abduct me,” he said.

Eventually, unsure that he would ever be able to return, Matar made his way to Aleppo and from there, crossed over to Turkey.

“I left and didn’t hide it, I left normally,” he said. “I don't know, it might have been good luck because I went through multiple checkpoints, and they didn’t have lists of the names of those of us who were wanted — I don't know why they didn't at the time.”

Though he managed to escape Raqqa, Matar paid a steep price. He has received no information about his brother since his disappearance the day of the car bombing in August 2013. He said he one day hopes to return to Syria, one free of both President Bashar al-Assad and terrorist groups, but, he says, he doesn't put much faith in the current strategies of the international coalition fighting against ISIS.

“Frankly, what they are doing now may weaken ISIS a bit, but what the U.S. and the international coalition are doing right now is airstrikes. I've lived in the areas where these airstrikes have happened, and to be honest, disabling ISIS with airstrikes alone is impossible ... even if you do it for 100 years.”

Matar says that ISIS lives among civilians and that airstrikes alone won’t be effective against ISIS unless “the plan is to kill all the people who live there whether they are civilians or fighters.” Matar calls for better-targeted strikes through coordination with Free Syrian Army forces on the ground.