When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, I spent my summer breaks herding sheep from sunrise to sunset. My daily routine was nearly always the same. I released the sheep from the barn, steered them along the village’s main road, grabbed a watermelon from a shop to add to my packed lunch, and turned to the desert. Once I left the populated section of the village, I directed the few dozen animals along the desert cliffs to the open fields at the mouth of a little valley.
My family had two lines of business at the time, farming and livestock trading, so we did relatively well. We owned some 1,000 livestock and had an orchard of about 900 pomegranate trees that was leased annually to merchants from Aleppo, who arrived at harvest time to ship the produce from several orchards in the area to their city. Along with my eight siblings, I helped in farming and herding not only over the summer but on weekends and holidays throughout the year. I didn’t venture outside my home village until 1996, after finishing my ninth-grade exams. At that point I went to the city of Albu Kamal to study in the area’s sole high school.
My village, Ash Sha’fa, lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The Iraqi border, mostly a sand berm eroded by desert winds, is only a short drive from the village. Most of Deir Ezzor’s population descends from one main Arab Sunni tribe, the Egaidat, to which my family belongs. Like most tribes in the Middle East, the Egaidat has members in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
This eastern region, commonly referred to in Syria as the Remote Provinces, is distinctly tribal, rural, and marginalized. In the 1990s, life there was generally simple and uneventful: The state’s presence was minimal, and villagers sustained themselves through farming and remittances from relatives working in the Persian Gulf. Even in retrospect, nothing in those days indicated that my home province would become the main transit hub for jihadists moving from Syria into Iraq after the 2003 invasion, or the site of the Islamic State’s final battle as a caliphate.
As someone who studies the Islamic State for a living, I still struggle to connect images from my past with the reality of today. They are simply two different worlds.
A little over a month after ISIS seized Ash Sha’fa, one of my siblings sent me a picture of our father. I froze at the sight of him with a gray beard. He used to be clean-shaven. But he, like other men living under the caliphate, was forced to wear a beard as a sign of his adherence to the religious principles of his jihadist rulers. This was five years ago, by which point I was already studying ISIS’s every move as a journalist in Abu Dhabi; the photograph made me feel the group’s terrors and daily humiliations in a new way.
In the context of the Syrian conflict, my family’s plight was not extreme; nor did my immediate family produce active participants in the many-sided war. But their story still provides a window into the country’s tragedy, and into how a society can be radically transformed in a matter of years.
When the Syrian conflict started, fighting and bombardments in the village were minimal, as clashes tended to be concentrated in the urban centers. But schools closed, as did many nearby hospitals. And the economic situation deteriorated rapidly. When ISIS swept through eastern Syria and western Iraq in June 2014, the ragtag militias that used to operate in Deir Ezzor vanished and were replaced by ISIS representatives who acted like a state security force.
ISIS militants seized properties belonging to the government or to individuals they deemed apostates. They constructed bases in those facilities. ISIS then widened its writ dramatically. Unlike the regime before the war, ISIS was highly visible. It micromanaged the areas under its control, down to family feuds that had once been resolved through tribal codes.
Before the uprising, my village did not even have a police station, and official paperwork had to be submitted in adjacent cities. ISIS, however, established centers for hisbah (the religious police) and tribal outreach in every village. Its fighters patrolled the areas, and a traveler from my village to the main city would encounter several checkpoints along the way, instead of just one, as was previously the case, at the bridge linking the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates, near Albu Kamal.
The Islamic State’s security apparatus in the village was headed by a Bahraini of Syrian descent in his 20s. He and other members presented themselves to the locals as liberators who were committed to enforcing Sharia. Men were not only required to grow their beard but also to attend prayers at the mosque, and women to wear full face cover. Smoking and selling cigarettes were banned, and violations of Sharia rules, from eating during Ramadan to engaging in adultery, were punished in the public square with lashings or executions. The public square was also used to display the bodies of people the militants had killed.
My family was afraid, but only in August 2014, about two months after ISIS seized the village, did they realize the extent of their danger. During that month, ISIS committed several atrocities against civilians, including the enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq. Then came the massacre of the Shaytat clan.
The Shaytat, part of the Egaidat tribe, lived just a few villages away. ISIS declared them ta’ifa mumtani’a, a religious label for Muslims who refuse to comply with Sharia, and killed at least 700 of them. Some survivors, mostly old men, women, and children, fled to Ash Sha’fa, where my family heard tell of what had happened. Tribal mediators eventually convinced the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to grant clemency to the displaced, but ISIS had made clear its ruthlessness.
My brother Hussain told me that people lived in constant terror under the organization. “You have to ensure you don’t make any mistakes and don’t get near them. Only then you’ll be okay,” he said. For those who were previously involved with the anti-government and non-jihadist Free Syrian Army, the risks were higher. They were considered potential threats, and ISIS would summon them for repentance and interrogation frequently in the early months.
A civilian exodus out of ISIS areas started as early as 2015 as the caliphate’s notorious security apparatus became dominant over the clerical and civilian structures. Indeed, that was the year Hussain managed to leave our family village, along with his wife and children. Several other members of the family followed in 2016. In response to the departures, ISIS imposed a strict prohibition on civilians leaving the “land of Islam” for the “land of infidels” without written approval. A person leaving the area for medical reasons had to name a guarantor living in the caliphate to ensure that he or she returned. ISIS increased its presence at key exits, cracked down on drivers who smuggled civilians, and finally laid minefields around smuggling routes. Nevertheless, departures accelerated, not only because of the group’s brutality, but because of Russian bombardments and the destruction of infrastructure by the U.S.-led coalition.