I am Mona Freij, a social worker, teacher and activist from Raqqa, but now I live in Gaziantep in Turkey as I had to escape Raqqa after I was personally targeted by ISIS. They attacked me for my activism in the Syrian revolution and for being an advocate for women’s rights and voices.
When the Syrian revolution started in 2011, I wanted to stand in solidarity with other cities that were rising up against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and I organised sit-ins in our house with other women as security was very tight and we couldn’t openly demonstrate at first. Then in 2012, I was dismissed from my job as a school teacher, along with 15 other colleagues, for standing up against the regime’s atrocities, and we started to organise demonstrations and non-violent activism.
In 2014, ISIS had taken over Raqqa and it was another layer of oppression that was enforced on us. But we weren’t silenced and we went on a demonstration against ISIS, joining the families of those who were kidnapped by ISIS to demand the truth about their whereabouts. Many of my friends and relatives were kidnapped by ISIS and my family were worried about me being in Raqqa so I decided to leave for Gaziantep where I continued to advocate against ISIS atrocities.
In September 2014, my mother got really sick and I needed to be with her. So I ignored everyone’s warnings and I went back, without anyone’s knowledge, to my family house in Raqqa. ISIS members learnt about my return only five days later and that night they raided our house demanding to see me. It was eight in the evening and I was at home working on my laptop. A girl I didn’t know burst in and asked me, “Are you Mona Freij?”. When my brother-in-law told her that I wasn’t Mona and that Mona was in Turkey, I realised she was with ISIS. She took my laptop and four other ISIS members joined her. One of them fired in the air and with the gun pointed at my head, I was ready to die. It was a terrifying experience.
My neighbours were the ones who saved me. They came in because they heard the noise, and told me to climb out onto the roof to escape. I was only able to escape and survive because of their help – despite knowing they might be killed for their kindness that day. I will appreciate that in my heart forever. That in the darkest moments, we stood for each other.
I wish I had known that that day was the last time I would see my mother. I would have hugged her tighter, I would have said goodbye properly, for a few months later my mother passed away. My sister and my brother were both detained by ISIS for three months and I couldn’t stop blaming myself for being in a safe place while they had to go through such suffering. I didn’t return until ISIS was gone from the area, and when I saw my family after ISIS had left, they told me horrific stories about what they went through.
I have never felt safe in Turkey. Two of my friends were assassinated in their apartments in Urfa by ISIS and I cannot rid myself of the psychological harm and the fear that ISIS has caused. There is always a fear amongst locals that ISIS will return, and over 70% of Raqqa was destroyed by US-led coalition bombing. Like our beloved city, we are not the same anymore.
We still don’t have any information about our friends and fellow activists who were kidnapped by ISIS. Unfortunately, neither the Syrian Democratic Forces nor the US-led coalition forces that were running the campaign against ISIS have really tried to answer this question. In the last few years, whenever we ask the SDF for information about the missing, they say they don’t know anything. There are camps and detention centres for former ISIS fighters, but no entity is monitoring these detention centres or knows who is inside.
My hope is that there will be an international entity that will provide information for Syrian families about their loved ones, and that will conduct official interrogations with the former ISIS members. For now, our lives are on hold and we won’t move on, we can’t move on, without answers and achieving justice.