About The Author
Samer (not his real name) is 24 years old. Having escaped from Raqqa he is living in a refugee camp in northern Syria. Mike Thomson is the Foreign Affairs correspondent for BBC Radio 4's 'Today' Programme. He has won four Amnesty International awards, four Foreign Press Association Awards, five Sony Academy awards (including News Journalist of the Year 2012) and several others.
The Raqqa Diaries began as a series of short boradcasts on Radio 4's Today Programme. One of the most isolated and fear-ridden cities on earth, no-one is allowed to speak to western journalists or leave Raqqa without IS's permission. Those caught breaking the rules face death by beheading. Despite this, Mike Thomson, with the help of BBC's Arabic Service, found a young man, part of a small anti-IS activist group, who was willing to risk his life to tell the world what is happening in his city. The diaries, which were written, encrypted and sent to a third country before being translated, describe how the diarist's father is killed and his mother badly injured during an air strike, how he is sentenced to 40 lashes for speaking out against a beheading, and seeing a woman stoned to death. They show how every aspect of life is impacted - from the spiralling costs of food to dictating the acceptable length of trousers.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Mike about how he became involved with Samer, the difficulties of taking in the horrors Samer describes and why educating people about the Qu’ran is the key to defeating Daesh.
Mike will be in conversation with John Humphrys at Foyles on 27th March. Click here for more info and to book.
Questions & Answers
How did you come to be involved with ‘Samer’?
I first came into contact with Samer in late autumn 2015 when I was trying to find somebody in Raqqa who could tell me what life there was like under so called Islamic State. With the help of my colleague, Nader Ibrahim of the BBC’s Arabic Service, I contacted a large number of people in Syria and asked if they knew anybody there who might talk to me. I knew this would be difficult because anyone in Raqqa caught communicating with the western media or other outside organisations by IS faces death by beheading. This fate is thought to have befallen more than a dozen activists there.
The activist organisation ‘Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently’ were very helpful, but most of their members had been forced to flee Raqqa to escape arrest by IS. Finally I was told about a smaller activist group called ‘Al-Sharqiya24’ which had a lower profile locally and many young members still inside Raqqa. I managed to contact the group a few days later and was introduced to Samer and one of his colleagues over social media. I initially did a few radio interviews with Samer’s friend but it was later decided not to do any more of these. The fear was that IS might either recognise the voice of the speaker or catch him with the technical equipment needed to get him online. From then on we agreed that Samer would send me written accounts of daily life and I would then get these voiced-over in London by an actor.
Can you describe the process by which the diaries and illustrations reached you?
Samer wrote most of the diaries on his mobile phone. Then, using encryption software, he sent them electronically to a fellow member of Al-Sharqiya24 in a nearby country. His colleague then emailed them on to me here in London where they were translated and voiced-over in English. He didn’t send them direct to me because if his phone was searched by IS and they discovered he was sending material to a UK number, he would be accused of being a spy whether or not they could decipher what exactly he had sent or to whom.
What was the response to the BBC broadcasts?
There was a huge response to Samer’s diaries from people in Britain and around the world. Listeners talked of being stunned, moved and reduced to tears by what they heard. The diaries were translated into many different languages and broadcast across the globe by the BBC’s different language services. They were also beautifully and imaginatively illustrated by the artist, Scott Coello and shown both on BBC television and BBC online. The illustrations also helped to make the diaries and events in Syria more accessible to young people, (including my own son), who found them compelling viewing. Many of these marvellous illustrations, as well as many new ones, are used in the book too.
I was also delighted to hear Samer tell me that the diaries have also proved very popular amongst civilians and activists in Syria. So much so that IS has tried to counter them with their own propaganda films, one of which was called ‘A young Man from Raqqa.’
Have you been able to stay in touch with him and do you know how he’s getting on? Will there be another instalment of his diaries?
I have stayed in regular contact with Samer and one of his activist colleagues ever since we first talked more than 18 months ago. It was vital to be able to do this when compiling the book, as well as the audio diaries series broadcasts before that. But there were periods when me and my BBC colleagues Nader Ibrahim and John Neil, heard nothing from Samer for weeks on end. We would see news reports detailing how IS had murdered opposition activists in Raqqa and even in neighbouring Turkey and be left fearing the worst. Happily, Samer always managed to contact us again in the end. Sometimes, he later told me, when he feared he was being watched by IS, he would lie low for a while and not write any diaries or contact us. Even when we knew this may be the innocent explanation for him going silent, we always worried.
As the title of the book suggests: The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’, Samer has managed to get out of Raqqa. Details of how he did that are in the book. He is now living in North West Syria. Though still far from safe he is at least out of the clutches of IS. Life is still very hard for him. He told me that he often gets very depressed but insists he is still hopeful of returning to his beloved city one day: “The present is full of problems, and by engaging with these, I help free my mind from the past. I cling to the hope that although these precious memories are gone, I may find new ones if, one day, I can return to my home. This is my hope.”
We have talked of the possibility of him writing more diaries about his ongoing experiences. Late last month (February) he revealed how he finds it very cathartic writing his often horrific experiences in this way.
He told me: “Whenever anyone is down, like I am sometimes, it always feels so much better to get your worries off your chest by sharing them with others.”
I think this means there could well be more diaries to come in the future.
Do you think that we in the West even now don’t really grasp the realities of what life is like in the areas of Syria controlled by so-called Islamic State?
To be totally honest, despite talking to Samer regularly over many, many months I still find it hard to fully take in the horrors he speaks of. How can anyone who has never personally experienced such things say with any real conviction that they really understand what his life and those of so many others in Raqqa are like? It is beyond our experience. But Samer’s main mission throughout his diaries, as well as that of his activist friends, is to try to bridge that gap: “We want the outside world to know what is happening. Things they might not otherwise imagine, like the executions and stonings, and casualties from air strikes. We want to tell those who have fled Raqqa how our city is coping. We also worry about those who are now refugees in unknown countries. They must be equally worried about what is happening here.”
Samer’s rich descriptions and touching emotional honesty go a very long way towards helping us to enter his horrifying world. In one example he writes about how his mother, like mothers everywhere, is not easily fooled by her son’s efforts to persuade her that all is fine when in reality it is not. Below he recounts coming home one evening worrying one about two suspected IS men. They had been asking about him earlier and he was desperately trying to hide his fears from his mother:
“Was I going to be lashed, or sent to fight for Daesh on the front line? My first thought was to run away, but I knew that they’d soon come after me.
I spent the whole day thinking about those two men and what might happen. But nobody came to get me, and as soon as the shop closed, I went straight home.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ my mother asked. ‘Why do you look so pale?’
Mothers spot these sorts of things.”
Samer’s Raqqa is a place where mans’ inhumanity to his fellow man seems to know no bounds. Yet he also shows that kindness, kinship and courage survive there too, chinks of light in a city of darkness.
Do you agree with Samer’s friend Khalid that one way to wage war against Daesh is to educate people about the Qu’ran in order to expose how Daesh are ‘using religion to cover up their criminality’?
I agree totally. I have spoken to many people in Syria and beyond who take the same view as Khalid. “This is not Islam”, so many say, “this is not in the Qu’ran!”. The biggest problem though is convincing the members of IS themselves. Many, particularly lost and embittered young men, seem to be looking for a way to justify the persecution, subjugation and annihilation of others. A black and white world in which there is no grey, only a hatefilled certainty that elevates them and their beliefs above all others.
Is Samer right that had the Assad regime met the Syrian people’s most basic demands IS would not have been able to seize control of parts of Syria and Iraq, that, as the epigram states: ‘the tyrants bring the invaders.’
Samer, like many rebel supporters from places like Eastern Aleppo and Daraya, who took place in the early revolutionary protests, believes in democracy and free speech. Had such things been granted by President Assad it is likely that the Syrian leader may well have been removed from power in a subsequent election. Perhaps if this had happened early on in the revolution extremists like IS would have been unable to gain the foothold that they now have. It is also possible, however, that a different kind of civil war may have followed between those who support democracy and others who want a form of theocracy based on sharia law.
But whatever the arguments, Samer clearly feels let down by the ongoing lack of help for those who stood up to the Assad regime and bravely called for change:
“The fact that the world is standing idly by, just watching what is happening, does not surprise anyone here anymore. Everyone I meet, whether it is a child or an old person who has witnessed many horrors, pins their hopes on our own revolutionaries. The outside world has not answered our calls. Some countries do worse than just stand by. They have given the regime help in killing its people. They continue to do this while thousands of families live out in the open with nothing to protect them from the rain, the sun and the bombs.”
Samer’s chilling accounts of the brutality and cruelty that characterise everyday life in Raqaa are all the more powerful for being so matter-of-fact and unemotional. Was this understatement a conscious decision in the editing/writing process?
No, absolutely not. The matter-of-fact way that Samer often describes events struck me too. I agree that it makes what he says even more powerful in a strange sort of way but he was never encouraged to do this.. Instead, It seems to be a sign of how common the horrific events he describes have become in Raqqa. His style of writing is clearly not an indicator that he has become insensitive to what he is witnessing. In some parts of his diaries he writes quite emotionally about life around him. Take this extract about IS’s brutal killing of a friend of his:
“In front of my friend's house I see a man with his head cut off. He's been crucified too. A sign above his head reads: 'a spy, a collaborator that worked against the Islamic state'. It's him. I can't believe it. I'm in such a state that I can't go home. I don't want my mother to see me like this. How could they do that?! Leave his butchered body in front of his mother's house?! In front of his family. I've decided I can't take this anymore. It's getting worse by the day.
…….I've decided to leave.”
During the compiling of the book neither I, nor my two BBC colleagues, Nader and John, ever tried to influence or direct Samer’s writing style. Nader would translate what he wrote as literally as possible and I would then make sure everything made sense and was as true as possible to the tone of the Arabic. Samer would sometimes ask if we thought his writing was good enough. He often lacked confidence in what he wrote, saying that he had never written anything like this before and hoped that his observations were intelligible and of interest to others. They most certainly were.
Do you see any kind of future for the ordinary people of Syria?
Yes, I certainly do. I take heart from the words Samer wrote at the end the book:
“We hold on to the idea that in the end, good will prevail. History will show generations to come what was right and what was wrong. Hopefully the world will learn from this and stop it happening again. As one of our oldest sayings goes: ‘He who plants a good seed gets a good tree.’
All we are left with is hope. Hope that our country will rebuild itself. Hope that the sacrifices made by our people will finally banish the cruelty and evil that has long stalked our land. For now, this is all we can do”.