“This is true, but they (the besieged civilians) are considered apostates from the religion of God for being under the rule of the regime. Once we enter those regions, we shall govern by the rule of God and show no mercy.”
From Hunger to Apostasy
The residents of the besieged neighbourhoods in Deyr az-Zawr stand at a crossroads: they either choose to endure the injustice of the Syrian regime or escape to the regions controlled by the self-declared Islamic State where they are prosecuted.
div>(Gaziantep, Turkey) Life in the regime-held regions in Deyr az-Zawr has become a humanitarian disaster for the residents of the city who have to endure the injustice of the security and military forces. Meanwhile, the few civilians who manage to leave are subjected to the worst kinds of treatment by the self-declared Islamic State (IS).
The city of Deyr az-Zawr is located on the shores of the Euphrates River which borders its eastern entrance. To the west rises the Jabal al-Maqabir (the Mountain of Cemeteries) where the Syrian army is positioned. The regime also controls the western and northern neighbourhoods of the city.
On the other side, the Islamic State controls the entire countryside of Deyr az-Zawr, as well as a great part of the city centre. However, the takfiri organisation can only access this area from one crossing, the eastern entrance (Jisr as-Siyasiyyah), while the regime surrounds it from the three other sides.
The regime uses the mountain to shell IS-held neighbourhoods with heavy artillery and also as a supply route connecting the Deyr az-Zawr airport to the western neighbourhoods it controls (al-Jura and al-Qusur). Meanwhile, IS has beleaguered these neighbourhoods since it seized the countryside, and blocks access to all kinds of food. Therefore, 400,000 displaced people suffer from hunger, after they fled to these areas to escape regime shelling.
Rami (1), one of the displaced people who escaped the siege, told Good Morning Syria about the living conditions there in an interview held in Gaziantep, Turkey. “Ever since the Islamic State laid the siege to the regime-held neighbourhoods in January 2015, the prices of food products increased eight times, that is if they are available in the first place,” he said.
Rami also noted that many challenges face whoever attempts to leave the besieged areas. “There are only two crossings into these neighbourhoods: the first is the Deyr az-Zawr military airport used by the regime to transport ammunitions, military supplies, and food for the army, the shabbiha and the National Defence Forces, while leaving no allocations for the civilians under siege. As for the second crossing, it is the al-Baghiliyyah road at the city’s western border, which is used (by civilians) to move toward regime-held regions. However, civilians must obtain a written authorisation from the governor (of Deyr az-Zawr) to cross the last regime checkpoint there. This authorisation could cost up to 150,000 SYP (the equivalent of around 500 USD) and the Islamic State doesn’t allow any civilian to cross in from that road,” Rami explained.
Mohammad used to own a shoe shop in the besieged regions, but he escaped to the Idlib governorate. “What is happening in those neighbourhoods is a strange and unprecedented misfortune: civilians are suffering from extreme poverty, salaries do not cover more than five days per month due to the increased prices, the electricity has been cut off since February and the regime does not provide the besieged civilians with healthcare or any services,” he explained, describing the inhumane conditions of the siege in a Skype call.
According to Mohammad, the regime does not allow civilians to leave these neighbourhoods to continue to exploit them financially. “In May, I was in my shop located in the al-Wadi street in the al-Jura neighbourhood, when a Military Security (al-ʼamn al-ʿaskariyy) patrol came in to buy shoes, in their own way: each of them chose a brand new pair of shoes, leaving me their old ones without paying. When I asked for my money, they paid me back by beating me up and smashing the shop. Thank God they did not take me to their branch, because I would rather die than be tortured in its underground prisons,” the shoe shop owner remonstrated.
When someone manages to flee the besieged neighbourhoods, they are “welcomed” by the Islamic State at its checkpoints. Abdun-Nasir, a university student now based in Gaziantep, told Good Morning Syria: “In September, I escaped the regime-held areas and reached the regions controlled by IS, where they (the IS militants) welcomed me and treated me well, offering me cookies and juice.”
After that, they took Abdun-Nasir to an interrogation centre in the area of Maʿdan, north-west of Deyr az-Zawr, to determine whether he was a supporter of the Syrian regime. “When we arrived at the centre, their behaviour took a 180-degree turn to the extent that I even wondered if the militants at the checkpoint and those in the centre belonged to the same organisation. I was detained for twenty days and accused of apostasy (riddah). Whenever I asked questions during the interrogation, I was insulted and beaten up,” the student said.
It was only by chance that Abdun-Nasir realized why IS leaders had accused him of apostasy. On the twelfth day of his detention, he overheard a conversation in the adjacent room between the local IS emir and an agent working for the ‘caliphate’ in the besieged neighbourhoods of Deyr az-Zawr.
The informer confirmed that the regime is oppressing most of the civilians living in those areas, “but they cannot leave because they do not have enough money to bribe the governor or the soldiers at the last regime checkpoint.” According to Abdun-Nasir, the agent also informed the emir about the presence of many young draft dodgers who refuse to take part in the massacres.
Nonetheless, the IS leader said: “This is true, but they (the besieged civilians) are considered apostates from the religion of God for being under the rule of the regime. Once we enter those regions, we shall govern by the rule of God and show no mercy.”
The twentieth day of Abdun-Nasir’s detention coincided with ʿAid al-Adha, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the takfiri organisation, issued a resolution to free some detainees from the Islamic State prisons, so that the young student was released.
This is the current situation of the residents of the besieged neighbourhoods of Deyr az-Zawr: food has become a dream and the escape routes a great challenge. If they dare to claim their rights, they are beaten up and arrested. What is even more paradoxical is how the Islamic State treats them under interrogation even though they do not support the regime.
All names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources.