John stood watching on the pavement, as Islamic State fighters entered Raqqa in their tanks and military vehicles. He was part of the crowd at the first beheading, and saw for the first time his mother and sister wear Islamic dress. John and his father signed the jizya document – an annual tax paid to IS, allowing non-Muslims to continue living as Christians in the so-called “caliphate”.
John is in his early 20s. He can’t say his real name, what he is studying, or in what type of business his parents were involved.
“Life in Raqqa carries on as usual in many ways. Shops and restaurants are open. There is food, electricity, and water. People are more fortunate than those living in a city like Aleppo.”
“But you’re constantly alert, never looking into someone’s eyes when walking on the street; always aware of what to say and not to say.”
Islamic State troops won the battle for Raqqa in January 2014. After a week of intense fighting with other radical groups, they took control and declared it the capital of their caliphate.
“Before [IS won the battle] we had a scary week. We stayed in our house because everyone on the streets was being shot at.”
John watched from the side-lines as the streets filled with people shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).
“I didn’t shout it – I am a Christian. But when an IS man saw me being silent, he stopped the car. I had to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ too.
“Many in Raqqa welcomed IS, but they all now regret it.”
Soon people discovered that things had radically changed. IS started executing those they suspected to be supporters of the President or of having fought with other rebel groups against IS.
In the same week that Islamic State declared Raqqa their capital, they destroyed the interior of three churches.
“They broke everything inside – the icons, the altar, everything. One church building is now a centre for IS.”
Nobody was forced to stay in the new caliphate, and many left. In some ways life returned to normal, John said, but it was soon clear that the city was under the control of IS. They changed the names of public buildings, “Islamic State” was printed on car number plates and the group banned the use of new bank notes printed by the Syrian government.
Soon after IS declared Raqqa their capital, Christians were told how they could live under IS rule.
“We could [convert and] become Muslims and live a normal life in Raqqa, we could leave, or we could stay and pay the jizya tax. The first year the tax was 54,000 Syrian pounds [about US$300] per man – women and children are not ‘taxed’ – but last year the rate went up to 164,000 Syrian pounds per man.”
The price of gold is used to calculate the jizya; in Islamic tradition it is 16 to 18 grams of gold per year per man.
John advised his parents to leave Raqqa, but they didn’t want to abandon their home and business, and selling them was impossible. Even though many of the estimated 1,500 Christian families left, they stayed; at least it meant John could continue his studies.
John soon witnessed how IS dealt with those who didn’t obey their rules.
“I saw a lot of cruelty. Every Friday they executed people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. They couldn’t behead him with the first cut. He suffered so much they finally shot him.”
John described how sick he felt when IS beheaded hundreds of soldiers from Raqqa’s Syrian Army base and then pinned their heads on the fence he passed daily on his way to work. He felt IS soldiers were monsters, who could attack at any moment and for any reason.
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