Since the Islamic State (ISIS) overran most of Deir Ezzor in August last year, local residents have been stuck between militants and Syrian government forces, who still control a handful of neighborhoods.
Once a stronghold for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Deir Ezzor is now a divided city where the remaining locals are enduring ISIS’s brutality and the Assad government’s bombs. Bilal, a 29-year-old who defected from the Syrian military in 2013, had to flee Deir Ezzor to a refugee camp in Turkey. Several of his relatives have been arrested or executed by ISIS. “Some were accused of apostasy and executed – either by being beheaded or shot,” he told Syria Deeply. “Others were forced to give up their weapons and were imprisoned for various durations.”
His family’s situation is common in Deir Ezzor, where ISIS has introduced a new rule of law that includes harsh penalties such as stoning, beatings, executions and the confiscation of private property. After Bilal was detained by ISIS for three days, he found that his home had been confiscated on the grounds that he is a former Syrian army soldier. “That house sheltered my wife, my son, my parents and my siblings,” he recalled. “We all ended up homeless.”
“Many houses were confiscated and transformed into ISIS offices. Some houses were given to foreign fighters who brought their families with them,” Bilal explained.
ISIS has also implemented its punitive home confiscation policy on the villages and rural areas surrounding Deir Ezzor, according to Bilal. In the villages of al-Shheil, al-Kishkiyyah and Abu Hamam, residents have been exiled and had their property confiscated. “My house belongs to a Tunisian immigrant now,” he said. “This is similar to what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1948.”
Because he works in the Syrian government’s immigration office, Fadil, 26, had to move to the Joura neighborhood, an Assad-controlled area where all of the municipal and military institutions were relocated when rebels took control of the rest of the city. His wife and two-year-old son, however, stayed in their old home in a nearby ISIS-controlled village out of fear that it would be confiscated if they left it empty.
“Before the war, I used to commute to work and back home to the village, where I spent the rest of the day with my family. Even after the FSA took over my village, I could not go back anymore,” Fadil told Syria Deeply. Explaining that his job is the family’s sole source of income, he hopes that the Assad government will stamp out the revolution and that he’ll be able to be reunited with his family.
Fadil says that his wife and son were able to visit him in Joura when the FSA controlled their village, but that ended when ISIS arrived. “Moving between the two areas is completely prohibited,” he said. “Even the landline phones and cellular services are cut off. I didn’t speak to my family for four months until some businessmen were eventually allowed to open internet cafes in my village.”
His wife Mariam says that she and her son “lived in complete isolation” because most neighbors were too fearful to speak to them because “my husband still works for the regime.”
ISIS forbade her from leaving her home altogether because she wasn’t accompanied by a man. “They came to my house many times,” she told Syria Deeply. “They told me that my husband is an infidel and demanded that I leave the home and go live with my parents because it is forbidden to live alone without a male relative.”
One day, around a dozen ISIS fighters showed up at her home wearing black masks. They told her that she had to divorce her husband because he hadn’t been home in more than a year. “One of them told me that I shouldn’t worry – I wouldn’t remain without a husband because one of the fighters would do me a favor and marry me.”
When Mariam refused, she was told that the home was being confiscated and that she had 24 hours to leave. “As usual, they were all fully armed and they were very determined,” she recalled. “I left and couldn’t bring anything with me but some personal items. The house and everything inside it now belong to ISIS.”
Now living with her sister in a neighboring city, Mariam says that ISIS fighters continue to harass her and threaten punishment if she doesn’t divorce her husband. “They still stop by my sister’s house to remind me that I have to get divorced so they can marry me to one of the fighters.”
Back in Joura, Fadil is overcome with anger. “There’s nothing worth living for anymore,” he said. “My wife, my son and my home are not mine anymore.”