The Undercover Woman in the 'Islamic State'-Raqqa

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Spring 2014
Raqqa, Syria

This interview is a step-by-step account of the making of rare and exclusive footage of life inside Raqqa. In September 2014, her story went viral and captured the attention of the world.

Raghad, the courageous and defiant young activist woman who secretly shot the footage, explains how and why she risked certain death to capture the images of her hometown. She describes in detail her fears and ultimately her determination to tell the story of her city now under the secretive rule of the Islamic State.

Transcript:

00:00 – 00:50
I was following the news about Raqqa on the Internet and Facebook pages. In January [2014], after New Year’s Eve, all Facebook pages were talking about a war – Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham were fighting against the Islamic State. These problems lasted for about a week and people were banned from leaving their homes during that period. At the end, the Islamic State controlled Raqqa province completely. The day this happened, I felt that I should return to Raqqa.
00:51 – 01:17

Buying a niqab was a personal initiative. I knew a little bit how to hold a headscarf. I had never tried to wear [the niqab], not even jokingly. But I put it on and left the house.
Since I didn’t how to wear the niqab before, I went to a store and asked the owner to train me to put it on.

01:18 – 01:38
[On my way to Raqqa] I was thinking that I was about to see with my bare eyes everything that I had heard about. And because media and filming in Raqqa were banned and journalists were not allowed TO WORK there, anyone who is caught with a camera would definitely be executed.
01:40 – 02:03
It was very dangerous but I had this positive energy and I wanted to take advantage of it at the right time, especially that during the liberation period, before the Islamic State took over Raqqa, there was nothing that I could do, while everyone was trying to do something.
02:08 – 03:05
I bought a camera, a small one… I bought the camera and I started thinking of something to film.
But I was also hearing about the crime of working as a journalist – about what would happen to journalists. They do not want the true picture to come out; they just want people outside of Raqqa to be terrorized by the stories they hear but not to be able to see anything. I brought my small purse and I made a hole to precisely fit the camera’s lens and I decorated it with some accessories to hide it – and then I headed to Raqqa.
03:06 – 03:26 As soon as I left the house, the first thing that caught my eye was a signboard that advertised for niqab. I cannot remember the exact phrase; it was something like “We salute you, woman wearing the niqab.”
03:27 – 03:50 I kept walking -- the first thing that shocked me was the preaching office [it used to be a church and] the cross was demolished, the flag of the Islamic State was raised over it and the outside wall was painted black. I knew then that [the building] was turned into something called a “preaching office.”
03:51 – 04:21
I walked by the headquarters, and then I headed to the checkpoint and filmed it. This checkpoint was very dangerous – for a bike to pass through it had to be ridden by an Islamic State member. I guess God helped me and made it possible that they didn’t see me. For me, it was the most dangerous spot in the world. It was like the Bermuda triangle – whoever walks by would probably not make home. But thank God, I was able to get away.
04:22 – 05:26
I went back home, and the next day I went to an Internet café. My only purpose was to use the Internet in order to talk with some people.
The minute I sat in front of a computer, a mujahida – a female Islamic State member – headed towards me. She was Tunisian. I could not understand half of what she said; what I was able to understand was: “Would it be OK if you left the computer?” There wasn’t any other available computer. [The women] were in a group of about four or five.
I asked her: “Why?” I had only been sitting there for 10 minutes. She said: “Because I am a mujahida, I cannot leave my house at anytime and I am busy. You could leave the computer for me for about half an hour or an hour and then I will give it back to you.” I said: “Okay.”
I left the computer for her and went back home, then I brought the camera and returned.
05:30 – 06:11
I couldn’t understand what [the women] were saying. I tried to chat with them. I talked to the same woman who asked me to give her the computer. I asked her where she was from, she said: “God knows. I am from the country of the Muslims.” They are strange.
I talked to another woman, but she did not answer me. I addressed her so many times, but she did not talk to me at all. They have a problem COMMUNICATING with civilians. They are very careful. I really don’t know why. Time after time, I tried to talk to them and ask them why they came to Raqqa but they didn’t give me answer.
06:12 – 06:52
A French woman was the only one who answered my questions at the Internet café. I asked her: “Where are you from?” She answered: “I am from France.” So I asked: “Are you originally French?” She said: “Yes, I am from France and I lived in France.” I asked her: “What are you doing here?” She said: “I came here to fight Bashar [al-Assad] and the Free Syrian Army.” She went on, saying: “In a couple of days my 13-year-old daughter will get married and then I will be ready to blow myself up. Pray for me to become a martyr.”
06:53- 07:38
When I finished the first day of filming I went home to see the footage. There were things that I didn’t feel when I was on the ground. As I told you, I was somewhat nervous. I was concentrating on filming and getting a clear footage.
When I went back home, whenever I saw a scene in the video I would remember something specific. I saw fear. People’s looks showed they were lost. Nobody knew what was happening. What they knew was that there were decisions being made that they had to implement – they didn’t know where they were heading. Fear was terrible. Children, adults, and people in the MARKET, people queuing in front of bakeries – people everywhere were scared.
07:39 – 08:12
Girls wear a veil if they were of the age of 12 or above.
[At school], there were classrooms for girls and other ones for boys. Even during the recess… the playground would be available for 10 minutes for boys and another 10 minutes for girls. Art and music classes were also cancelled, and the [Islamic State] canceled the most important thing [the students] were working on, which is the capoeira project. It was over. 08:13 – 09:14
I once saw two Islamic State members – a woman, and someone who appeared to be her husband. Of course, she was a carrying a weapon.
Only women who were members of armed battalions could carry weapons.
I looked at them from a distance and saw a little child who was less than one year old. Both his mother and father were carrying weapons. When I saw this, I thought to myself: “What will this child become when he grows up?”
They went into a park and I followed them. They sat down, and I sat across from them – the minute I sat down I saw a religious police car inside the park. In the car, there was a man a woman – a member of the women’s battalion.
09:15- 10:09
I was still sitting, and the man started talking to me from a distance. I swear to God that I was wearing the niqab according to the strict Islamic manner. I was also wearing the abaya [a black cloak].
He said: “Do you think that the way you look is appropriate for going out?”
I walked up to him and the camera was still on. I told said to him: “I didn’t understand what you’re saying.” He said: “Do you think that the way you look is appropriate for going out?”
I said: “I am sorry, maybe I didn’t PAY attention to the pay I looked.”… I did not try to argue with him out of fear of the unknown – of what could happen to me – I was also scared because I was carrying a camera… I had heard about what happened to the woman who argued [with the religious police about the niqab]… He was Saudi.

10:10 – 10:35
The second time I had more courage. I knew how to move around, and where [Islamic State] members were concentrated. I also had in mind what was missing to have a complete picture [of the situation]. I had a “WORK plan,” as the saying goes. I had things in mind that I wanted to do.

10:36 – 11:52

Sometimes when I would go into a shop, I would find a mujahid [Islamic State fighter] with his wife… In the last phase of filming – this was about 20 days after I went [to Raqqa] – the presence of [Islamic State fighters] on the streets changed significantly. It was extremely heavy.
Maybe you’ve noticed in the previous videos; I would walk in the streets, and could barely see one or two of them. As I told you, I had to go to their headquarters to record their presence in the city. In the last phase, their presence was very noticeable. They moved in columns -- groups of about 10,15 or 20 people – and would go into shops. Fighters with their wives and children would go into stores to shop. They would buy things and PAY in cash, straight away, without any bargaining.
For example, I once went into a small mall – it is more like a supermarket – I found some of them filling up their shopping carts with every kind of delicious food.
11:53 – 12:18
About their salaries, I know that an immigrant fighter would get paid 1,200 US dollars [a month]. If his wife would be paid the same amount, or a bit less, they could afford an extremely comfortable life. Immigrant fighters have high salaries. Syrian fighters are paid 400 dollars. I’m certain of this INFORMATION.
12:19 – 12:37
The reason I was able to film freely is because I am a girl. Had they stared at me, they could have seen [the lens]. If someone wanted to be wily he could have discovered the camera; it was not very hidden.
12:40 – 13:25
Once, I was walking and a woman bumped her hand into me. The purse and camera fell from me.
I was often terrified of being caught. But I only felt scared when I walked by members of the women’s battalion. They would not search me, but they could inspect me more [than men would] – they could look more at my appearance and what I was carrying.
As I told you, if there was a battalion of male fighters or security members on the street, then I would not be very scared, to be honest. Sometimes I would walk closely behind them to film them and even try to record their voices.
13:26 – 14:10
I want to convey the [real] picture about the situation. I want to offer something to my raped city. Raqqa was violated and I still had not seen anything on the ground. I wanted to see with my own eyes and film [life in Raqqa]. When I would later sit on my own, I wanted to see the psychological impact [of what the Islamic Sate was doing].
While I was walking in the street and filming, I was scared. I could not concentrate 100 percent on what was happening around me. When I went back home and saw the footage, I was extremely depressed.