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Conversations: In Raqqa, Pharmacists Take an ISIS ‘Re-Education Course’

They told us that we are at war with the infidels and the deserters … and so we should grab weapons and fight by their side.”.

Written by Ayham al-Khalaf Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Abu Loay (a pseudonym chosen for security reasons) is a pharmacist in Raqqa. He provided medicine to rebel field hospitals after the city was taken over by the opposition.

But when the Islamic State (ISIS) took over the city and made it their self-proclaimed capital, the jihadist group ordered that all pharmacists must take an ISIS-approved “re-education course,” and those who refused would be forced to close their pharmacies. Abu Loay took the course in order to preserve his business. He told Syria Deeply about the mandatory course and how it has affected his business and his home city.

Syria Deeply: How were you told about the re-education course, and how did ISIS arrange for you to attend this course?

Abu Loay: Through the Pharmacists’ Syndicate, or what’s left of it … they told us that we must attend this course, and those who didn’t would be suspended from work.

Syria Deeply: Did all pharmacists in Raqqa attend this course?

Abu Loay: No, we were divided into groups of 50 people in separate courses. There were pharmacists who didn’t show up at all because they hate ISIS, and there were others who had already left for Turkey as a result of ISIS harassment.

Syria Deeply: Tell us about the details of this course.

Abu Loay: The course lasted for eight days, an hour and a half to two hours daily. The information we were given was mostly irrelevant to our field of work. They taught us about praying, fasting and other Islamic obligations. The main focus was urging us to jihad and to fight with their troops.

They told us that we are at war with the infidels and the deserters, and that our jobs as pharmacists is useless in this war, and so we should grab weapons and fight by their side.

They forced three terms on us: the first was not to shave our beards as it is a sin, the second was to shorten our trousers because they claimed it’s part of Sunnah; the third was not to sell anything to a woman if she entered the pharmacy alone, because they consider it illegitimate privacy with a woman.

Syria Deeply:Who was your supervisor? Was he a pharmacist?

Abu Loay: No, our supervisor was an ISIS official. His name was Abu Abdulrahman al-Masri.

Syria Deeply: Did everyone return to their pharmacies after the course?

Abu Loay: No. At the end of the course there was a test by the committee. They asked us about the principles of Islamic jurisprudence and jihad, and what we learned from the course. The committee decided who passed and who failed.

Syria Deeply: Did anyone fail the test? What happened to those who fail?

Abu Loay: Yes, there were many who failed the test. I don’t really know what happened to them, but maybe they’ll have to take the course again. But thank God I passed and I got back to my work.

Syria Deeply: How did you feel during this course and during the test?

Abu Loay: How did I feel? It’s very hard to be forced to do anything, and this is what happened to us. We were forced to attend this course because we wanted to carry on with our jobs in our pharmacies, and out of fear. I saw fear in my colleagues’ eyes and I was scared too because any mistake, even just saying the wrong thing, could cost you your life.

I avoided asking any questions during the entire course so I wouldn’t get into an argument with al-Masri – risking that things could get out of control.

Syria Deeply: What incidents happened during the course that stuck in your mind?

Abu Loay: Every time there was a discussion about the revolution, al-Masri said that those who died under the banner of the secular revolution are going to live in hell for eternity because they did not die under an Islamic banner, nor did they pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. When he said that, I remembered my friends who died in the unarmed demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and I couldn’t defend them before this tyrant. It was very sad and disturbing.

Syria Deeply: What is your opinion of ISIS’s rulings and practices?

Abu Loay: [ISIS] is a plague upon Syria in general and upon Raqqa in particular. They stabbed the revolution in the back and this is my biggest problem with them, in addition to killing a great number of my friends who were on the front lines against Assad. They framed them with false accusations because they were against the Islamic State.

Syria Deeply: Why did you stay in Raqqa under their ruling?

Abu Loay: Many of my friends fled to Turkey, and ISIS took over their houses and their pharmacies. I didn’t want to lose my house and my pharmacy, plus life in Turkey is very expensive and I can’t afford to live there.

Syria Deeply: In your opinion, what lies ahead for ISIS?

Abu Loay: Unfortunately, I have resigned myself to their constant presence. I’m in a state of great despair, and I don’t think they’ll be leaving anytime soon.

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