Mother of a “Caliphate Cub” and a minor widow | Um Mohamed tells of her tragic story during ISIS control of Al-Raqqah
Among many families who are descended from various Syrian cities and now living in Al-Raqqah city, a 38-year-old widow nicknamed “Dina,” who is a mother of a 20-year-old widow called “Ranim” and a “Caliphate Cub,” in an alley in Al-Ferdaws area
In a previous corner shop, “Dina,” aka “Um Mohamed,” lives with her family of six and her daughter’s three children, where their house consists of only a corridor with some cooking appliances and food supplies used for their work being let hang on the wall, as well as an old-fashioned sewing machine, “Singer” brand.
“Um Mohamed” told the Syrian Observatory, “I was married off before I reached 15 years old to my cousin in Aleppo city. My husband was a merchant trading in foodstuffs. We moved with our relatives to Al-Raqqah city because of the conditions of my husband’s work. In early 2002, I gave birth to my first son ‘Mohamed’ and my daughter ‘Ranim.’ At that time, my husband was following ‘Salafi’ movement and he was affected greatly with the ideologies of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya. He had other Salafi friends, where they had held frequent meetings secretly, as most of Al-Raqqah city’s residents follow Sufism or moderates. We avoided dealing with any people in the city, even our neighbours. With the beginning of demonstrations in several Syrian areas, many families from Aleppo, Homs and Idlib displaced to Al-Raqqah city, while my husband and other merchants from Aleppo and Homs secured houses and provided food supplies to these displaced families. Such activities evolved to an organised system adopted by displaced people, men in particular, according to ideological bases. Accordingly, these men formed self-funded armed cells, especially since most of the merchants in Al-Raqqah at that time were descended from Aleppo. In addition, these formations received financial support from local mediators dealing with Arab organisations in early 2013, after regime forces lost most of Al-Raqqah countryside following fierce clashes. My husband joined the fight in the ranks of Ahrar Al-Sham, where he was sent to Tel Abyad and stayed there until March 2013. On March 3, 2013, regime forces lost Al-Raqqah city, where Ahrar Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front, Liwaa Al-Wehda Wa Al-Tahrir stormed the palace of the governor and the head of the police and broadcasted a video clip announcing the capture of Al-Raqqah city, while the presence of the Syrian regime in the city was confined to the headquarters of the political and military security services and the 17th Division.”
“My husband continued fighting for Ahrar Al-Sham, most of its fighters were from Aleppo and Idlib, until battles erupted between ISIS and military factions. Fortunately, my husband was in Al-Bab city during the battles. After ISIS had captured Al-Raqqah and expelled Ahrar Al-Sham, a friend of my husband, who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, mediated to make ISIS accept ‘istitabah’ (announcement of repentance) by my husband and allow him to return to his home in Al-Raqqah. After the return of my husband to the city and the expansion of influence of ISIS in large swaths in Syria and Iraq, my husband swore allegiance to ISIS and joined ‘Al-Hisba’ (ISIS security service) and he was known as ‘Abu Mohamed Al-Ansary.’ Meanwhile, my husband friends, ISIS members, frequented our house until one of ISIS members known as ‘Abu Obbay Al-Halabi’ proposed to my daughter ‘Ranim’ in 2015, and she was only 14 at that time.”
“My family and children were influenced greatly by ISIS ideology, especially since my husband deliberately played video clips showing military actions and activities by ISIS in presence of my children; this encouraged my son ‘Mohamed’ who was only 16 years old to join the camp of ‘Caliphate Cubs’ in Al-Akrishi area in Al-Raqqah countryside. My husband and my daughter’s husband praised this movement and encouraged my son. Of course, I rejected this decision, but I was beaten and humiliated by my husband for my rejection.”
According to SOHR sources in Al-Raqqah, ISIS established two camps for minor children dubbed “Caliphate Cubs” in Al-Akrishi area in the south-east of Al-Raqqah and Zor Al-Karama area in the eastern countryside of Al-Raqqah. On the other hand, ISIS “Dawa Centr” (Call-for-Islam Center) worked on promoting shows and video-contents on media outlets, aiming at impressing and attracting minor boys in Al-Raqqah and all areas under its control.
“Um Mohamed” continued, “nearly a month after my son had joined Al-Akrishi camp, specifically at a night of the winter of 2016, unknown aircraft executed several airstrikes on Al-Akrishi camp. Shortly after the attack, I was informed of the death of my son. This was most painful news I have ever received. I blamed my husband and his ideology for the death of my son and thought about taking my children and run away.”
“I could not even cry for the loss of my son because of the ideology of my husband and my daughter’s husband who see that crying over the dead was ‘a habit practiced during the age of Jahiliyyah’ (Jahiliyyah is an Islamic concept referring to the period of time and state of affairs in Arabia before the advent of Islam). In mid 2016, the area of Hazimah in the north of Al-Raqqah came under attack by aircraft, where we were informed of the death of my daughter’s husband, ‘Abu Obbay Al-Halabi,’ in that attack. Al-Halabi was a fighter of the ‘State Army’ and he was located with other fighters in the headquarters of ‘Al-Hisba’ in Hazimah. At that time, my daughter was pregnant and already had two children. She was not old enough to be ready for being a widow. Sometimes, I saw her crying, but some other times, I found her happy to get rid of ‘Abu Obbay’ who was ten years older than her.”
“I did not expect that I would be hit with more plights, but I did. Once, I was discussing with my husband the possibility to leave to Turkey, as I felt that he desired to defect from ISIS, especially after the escaping of many ISIS members and commanders and the shrinking of areas controlled by ISIS since September 2016. We have already agreed with a reliable smuggler to help us leave with our family to Turkey. Sadly, airstrikes targeted Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan school at the same time when my husband was at a night shift in that school. The airstrikes killed several ISIS members, including my husband.”
“With the help of my friend’s husband and after the circulation of a rumour about the collapse of the Euphrates dam, which triggered panic among all residents, we could flee the city with only our clothes and some essentials for the kids. We headed to the area where my friend’s relatives live in Al-Jurniyyah area, which was free of ISIS, and stayed there until Al-Raqqah city was liberated. In 2017, I learned sewing with the help of some women of the village. I kept practicing until I became a professional dressmaker, and I worked in Al-Jurniyyah area to earn my living and secure the needs of my family and my daughter’s family. After the liberation of Al-Raqqah city in June 2018, I returned to my house, but I found only ruins, as the house was totally destroyed during the devastating battles.”
These poor and powerless women in the so-called “Capital of the Islamic State” keep shocking secrets, where many of them were forced to marry at a young age before the control of ISIS, while most of them remarried after the death of their husbands in battles. In addition, many of these women have children with no IDs or birth certificates, after having been married to men coming from different countries. These women were married in a bizarre way, while many have become widows after losing their husbands in battles against ISIS.
“Um Mohamed” continued her story, saying “after I returned to Al-Raqqah, like many of the city’s residents, I found out that that my house was destroyed completely, so I rented this house in Al-Ferdaws area and settled here with my family. This house had been a corner shop, and it was partially damaged. My daughters and I, including my widow daughter, have worked in cleaning carpets in houses, preparing supplies and dressmaking. That was a really difficult time for me. I sent my son ‘Ali’ and my daughter ‘Roaa’ to school, but they were shunned and subjected to bullying, as their colleagues had drawn them into troubles and called them ‘Dawa’ish’ (ISIS members). This forced me to send my son to the industrial area, so that he can learn a profession, repairing cars, while my daughter was forced to stay at home.”
In the past years, several organisations and programs concerned with widows and their children started working in Al-Raqqah city, and adopted a specific policy to support women, especially widows and minors. However, “Um Mohamed” has not benefited from activities and support provided by these organisations, as she has not asked these organisations for help, fearing mistreatment by the residents who may assign unjustifiably the responsibility for “being wives of ISIS members.”
“Um Mohamed” looks forward to improving her living condition and that civil society will adopt programs for the rehabilitation of women, particularly widows and minors, so that they can be effective members of the society and help them to get rid of miserable experiences they lived during the period of ISIS control.