Book review: The Raqqa Diaries

ANY book written about the Syrian civil war can only, sadly, be a a sad book. And this book is no exception.

Book review: The Raqqa Diaries

The Raqqa Diaries

“Samer” Nader Ibrahim (Translator)

Mike Thomson and John Neal (Editors)

Hutchinson, €14.00

It takes the form of what the editors call, a diary, of a Syrian man opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria and IS or Daesh, whose fighters control large swathes of Syria.

‘Journal’, in this reviewer’s opinion, is probably more appropriate than ‘diary’.

The author, Samer (not his real name), lives with his mother in Raqqa in eastern Syria where they have a shop and he attends university. He has joined an underground movement at, needless to say, great personal danger. The journal begins in March 2013 with the defeat of the Assad forces by the Free Syrian Army in Raqqa. However, with that conquering army was IS which gained hegemony over that soon-to-be stretched Free Syrian Army in Syria. Its religious police began to patrol the streets and lay down the law as regards how people should behave.

Public beheadings soon follow and a person’s facial expression during a beheading just might betray less than full support for what was being carried out. This could, in turn, trigger an arrest of that person merely on suspicion.

The arrest of the brother of Samer’s girlfriend whom he planned to marry has cast a pall over Samer’s life. IS accused her brother of having fought with Assad’s forces. IS offered her family a deal — if she agreed to marry a soldier from IS, the charges against her brother would be dropped. She agrees, her brother’s life is saved, but Samer’s heart is broken.

Samer relates how he was beaten and arrested during an anti-IS demonstration at the university. The beatings continued while he was in custody, now by the secret police. Then the torture began. As his health deteriorates he signs some papers (including blank papers) and makes promises.

This is yet another argument against torture — it does not work. The prisoner being tortured will say what the secret police want to hear to stop the torture. Having said hello to the secret police, Samer knows that he was saying goodbye to the university.

His friend, Kalid, was crucified near his home. Realising t the circle around him is growing ever tighter, he decides to make his escape from IS and Syria. The escape is harrowing but he arrives at a refugee camp in Turkey, where the journal ends in May 2016.

The main editor, Mike Thomson, BBC foreign affairs correspondent, says Samer agreed to write this journal despite the dangers involved. The translated text comes across somewhat stilted in English, perhaps deliberately so, so to bring out the complexities of the entire situation.

Samer’s calling of the Assad regime the equivalent of the IS seems a stretch. All of the regimes in west Asia (the expressions Near East, Middle East and Far East are colonial names — middle east geographically to what? To England and France, of course, the imperial powers) are undemocratic and carry out tortures and assassinations.

However, even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Netanyahu’s Israel are put in the shade by the medieval barbarism of IS. As bloody and as brutal as Sadaam was, no one touched a Catholic Church under his regime or harmed the Yazidis or defaced Babylon. Look what has happened to the wonderful statues and temples of Palmyra in Syria and to the faithful and brave keeper of its antiquities, Kaled al-Asaad.

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