My city Al-Muhasan in Deir Ezzor was taken over by ISIS in July 2014. The first thing they did was cut the power supply so that our whole lives and our survival were in their hands. We now faced ISIS on the ground and the Syrian regime was bombing us heavily from the air.
That year, ISIS kidnapped my youngest brother Bashar – the fifth sibling that I lost. It was an incredibly tough time for my parents and I knew then that I couldn’t sit by and watch what was happening to my family and to my city. I decided to work as an undercover citizen journalist and I risked my life to tell the world about the crimes ISIS was committing and what we had to live through. Thousands of Syrians are still missing after ISIS, and we must not forget the horror we lived through, and we must continue to search for them and to pursue justice for their families against these crimes.
When I started working as a citizen journalist I was already a medical worker, so I began by documenting the health situation under ISIS. ISIS made new laws, including only allowing female doctors to work with female patients, and male doctors with men. I also took a big risk by documenting ISIS’ control over petrol and oil wells in the area. This was the most dangerous thing I’ve done.
Being heard by the outside world was the biggest challenge that we faced, and I wondered if anyone even knew what we were going through in that hell. We could only use the internet in cyber cafes run by ISIS, and they wanted to control anything that we used to communicate with the outside world.
I took the risk and kept two phones, one hidden in my bag for uploading materials and the other that I showed them, which I kept for having casual calls with family members and friends outside Syria. They would regularly ask for my phone and check its content.
Today, my feelings about these dark times are confused. I still get flashbacks of the horror we lived through. Our lives changed forever. They wanted to dictate what we did and how we dressed, and they would punish people for the slightest thing, from smoking a cigarette to having a walk in the street.
ISIS closed schools and prevented our children from learning, taking away the little routine and control young people had over their own lives. After a while, ISIS started running schools, and they created their own curriculum. Some teachers risked their lives to make sure that our children weren’t poisoned by their ideas, secretly teaching the students the usual curriculum as an act of resistance. We always found ways to do things our way and despite how difficult it seemed, we still had windows for hope.
Women were forced to wear dark abaya in public, a long black dress. My colourful, lively city was turning into a dark, ugly place and you could feel the sorrow in the ruined streets where everyone dressed the same. Once, I saw ISIS members taking two women away at the market, beating them and insulting them only for wearing clothes with a hint of colour. I felt so helpless in that moment.
The next day, I was at the market again and I had to uncover my eyes for a moment. They saw me and started insulting me with the worst words that a woman can be called. It wasn’t easy to stop myself from shouting back. My body was shaking, but I had to think of my children and my family. I didn’t want to cause any trouble for anyone.
My mother was one of the few people who would stand and speak up without fear in front of ISIS fighters. She impressed everyone with her courage and strength. She refused to cover her face, and whenever ISIS fighters tried to berate her, she would yell back and then strangely they started to avoid her. My mother was the strongest woman I knew and she never wore a face covering.
We weren’t always able to confront ISIS members, but we always tried to find ways to get around their laws. When they tried to make young girls in the area get married to fighters, families would lie and say that their daughter was engaged to a relative, even if both very young, just to prevent any trouble.
Things continued to get worse, and we couldn’t leave the house without a male family member accompanying us. One time, my sister-in-law got sick and we asked our neighbour to drive us to the doctor. We were stopped at a checkpoint and when the patrol found out that we were with a neighbour, they said it was forbidden to get into a car with someone who wasn’t a family member and threatened us with their weapons until we got out of the car and were left alone without a ride.
ISIS started to execute people publicly, keeping their bodies hanging for days. They sometimes insisted on having the family of the victim present to attend the execution. The horror and the pain of the things that we saw with our own eyes is unbearable. I had hoped I could delete these memories, but they still haunt me in my dreams.
By early 2015, ISIS had kidnapped many media activists and I knew I had to leave. I had already seen what they did to people who did nothing to ISIS. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if I was caught and I had heard a rumour from some relatives that ISIS wanted to punish me for my work documenting their oil wells.
I knew I couldn’t stay a day longer, walking in the city beside the people who had kidnapped my youngest brother Bashar. My family was being threatened and we had to leave the area, but it wasn’t an easy escape. We had to pass through many checkpoints throughout Raqqa, then to Aleppo, before leaving for Turkey.
Until this day, we are scarred by our memories of the atrocities of ISIS and we still don’t have any answers about my brother, just like thousands of other Syrian families who have loved ones kidnapped by ISIS.
Watch Yasmin talk about her brother Bashar: