What ISIS Did to My Village

As someone who studies the Islamic State for a living, I still struggle to connect images from my past with the reality of today.

Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the author was raised, a day after the Islamic State's "caliphate" was declared defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces
Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the author was raised, a day after the Islamic State's "caliphate" was declared defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (Delil souleiman / AFP / Getty)

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.

People became careful about what they said even around close family members. This extreme caution had not been the norm previously, even under jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, which used to control much of Deir Ezzor.

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.

After ISIS lost Mosul, Raqqa, and Anbar in 2017, fighters poured down to the group’s last strongholds, in the Euphrates River valley. ISIS militants would swiftly take over houses as soon as their owners vacated them—“like rats,” as one resident put it. Notwithstanding the danger, some locals chose to stay to safeguard their property, in anticipation of the possibility that after the war, dispersed family members might return. Their homes, in many cases, were all they had left. My father, my sisters, my uncles, and my cousins were among those who chose to remain, despite the risks. (My mother left in 2017, for medical reasons.)

For the most part, my family avoided confrontations with ISIS, but one of my cousins, Usamah, wasn’t so lucky. In December of 2018, he was riding his motorbike when he accidentally kicked up sand and pebbles near where ISIS members were standing. They stopped him and accused him of trying to hurt them. They searched his house and found a camera and a gun. Such materials were prohibited, so Usamah was taken into custody.

The militants at first assured Usamah’s family that he was undergoing a routine interrogation and that he would meet with a judge. But soon thereafter the militants said they no longer knew his whereabouts; another branch of ISIS, the general-security intelligence apparatus, had taken him. As was usual when civilians were found with banned items such as cameras, ISIS suspected he was working as an informant for the U.S.-backed coalition. The group had previously executed civilians in our village on the basis of such accusations, and Usamah’s family feared the worst.

About a month later, in January 2019, a shell struck my parents’ home, seriously injuring my father. Finally, he agreed to leave along with my sisters; my holdout uncles decided it was time to go with their children, as well, though reluctantly since Usamah was still missing. Although most of my family reached territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and were then escorted to a camp for civilians who’d escaped ISIS, the journey proved too much for my father and he turned back along with one relative.

On returning to the house, my father found two Iraqi members of ISIS scavenging the car he had left behind. He tried to stop them but gave up when they accused him—correctly— of attempting to smuggle himself out of the caliphate. He understood that if he persisted, they would report him or perhaps kill him. He stayed in the house for some days before, in a second attempt, he and my other family members managed to get out of ISIS-held territory and reach one of the liberated villages of the Shaytat clan.

My father was taken for medical treatment, while my sisters, my uncles, and my cousins waited in the camp for civilians. Soon after that, in late January, my village was liberated, and news emerged that prisoners had been handed over to the Syrian Democratic Forces. My cousin Usamah was among them, alive and as well as could be expected.

ISIS maintained its governance structures in eastern Syria—and its determination to enforce its version of Islamic law—long after it was obvious that the group could not prevail. The caliphate finally collapsed completely on March 23, 2019, four years and eight months after Baghdadi declared it from Mosul. For my family, one chapter ended and a new one began.

My parents and siblings live far from the village where I grew up, in a city held by the Syrian regime. They do not know whether they will ever return home, or whether they would recognize the village as their home. Our livestock is gone, our orchard’s fate is unknown, and the desert where I used to herd sheep is now a no-go zone because ISIS militants laid mines there. Such misfortunes are shared by and, indeed, affect the whole village. My father used to employ at least three people and offer support to other families, especially in high-demand times such as Ramadan and winter. Today he depends on pocket money sent by his children living abroad and cannot help others.

Widen the aperture, and the picture is even more dire. ISIS has left behind social friction caused by five years of divide-and-rule tactics, evident in current threats of revenge by clans such as the Shaytat against locals who cooperated with ISIS. It is impossible to tell how many people were indoctrinated by the Islamic State’s ideology.

But the ISIS takeover of my community was not inevitable, nor obvious in the slightest. Rural areas are socially conservative and governed by tribal norms but are not dogmatically religious. A strictly religious person might even be described in his rural community as darweesh or a simpleton. From Fallujah to rural Aleppo, the areas that ISIS controlled had historically been strongholds of Sufism, the antithesis of the jihadist movements that came to dominate the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The Islamic State operated in war-torn Syria for more than a year before its spectacular rise in 2014, but it had no grassroots support in Deir Ezzor. Instead, it had to snatch the province by force from other rebel groups before it was able to co-opt some portions of the population.

Nevertheless, the past five years have transformed the area and created a new reality—of societal and economic collapse, a power vacuum, and radicalization—that nobody has a plan to address. I worry that the people of my village, ripped apart by war, might eventually become amenable to an extremist ideology they were previously strong enough to reject. The contrast is stark between the simple world I lived in as a young man and the complicated one that my father left behind only a few months ago. The contrast might be starker still in the coming years.