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Women's secret films from within closed city of Islamic State

Foto: Expressen

AL-RAQQAH/DAMASCUS. Using hidden cameras two brave Syrian women show us what life is like inside al-Raqqah, capital city of terrorist sect ISIS in northern Syria.

They know they will be stoned to death if they are exposed.

They are willing to risk their lives to help the rest of the world understand.

Here, women's faces are so prohibited that they are even scribbled out on supermarket packaging.

Sharia policewomen patrol the streets in search of women who are not concealed behind double burqas.

And in this place, contraceptive pills that have been smuggled in are the only way to save a pregnant woman from being stoned to death.

"I want to live the way I want. I want to buy what I want. I want to go out alone, free and without having a guardian with me", says one of the women, Om Mohammad.

The winter rain falls onto the few people walking around on the streets of al-Raqqah.

The hidden camera footage shows men with semi-concealed Kalashnikovs over their shoulders – ISIS fighters.

They have made a pilgrimage to this place, convinced that they are going to establish God's State on earth – the Islamic Caliphate.

The result has become a hell on earth, not least for the women of the city.

2014: ISIS marches into Raqqa and makes it the capital of the caliphate.
Foto: Uncredited

The two Syrian women who we shall call Om Omran and Om Mohammad, which are not their real names, were willing to wear Expressen's hidden cameras, which have been smuggled in.

"We want the world to know," they say.

Over the course of several weeks, they have documented life in the completely isolated city of al-Raqqah.

Their videos are a unique glimpse into a bombed-out city.

"People are being forced to sell their blood; poor people are charging 1,000 Syrian pounds (approx. SEK 22) for a kilo of blood," Om Mohammad tells us.

The real city life in al-Raqqah. ISIS did publish their own videos from within, but it is propaganda material and its only purpose has been to show their strength and to recruit new voluntary warriors.
Foto: Expressen
Few people are seen on the streets.
Foto: Expressen
An ordinary sight in the city: ISIS-warrior carrying his weapon openly.
Foto: Expressen
Women should preferably not walk the streets alone. Their faces should be covered and they are supposed to walk along the walls of the buildings.
Foto: Expressen
The tradesmen are forced to adjust their businesses to new, tougher rules.
Foto: Expressen
The families who haven't been able to leave al-Raqqah have been forced to adjust to a new reality.
Foto: Expressen
The streets are muddy and the day-to-day life is miserable, far from the image shown by ISIS in their propaganda videos.
Foto: Expressen
Women who don't follow the rules of ISIS are punished with lashes – or worse.
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There is not a woman in al-Raqqah who would dare to go out on the streets of the city on her own. It is strictly prohibited.

Anyone not following the rules is flogged or imprisoned. And if you are unlucky, the punishment is death. A woman must be accompanied by another woman or a male guardian.

Raqqa is known for its dam Sadd al-Furat which lies 276 metres over the ocean. It is over 4,5 kilometers long and 60 metres high. The dam is one of the biggest in the Arab world. It is thought that the ISIS leadership uses the dam both as shelter and as a prison for the most important prisoners – mostly foreigners.

She should avoid walking down the middle of the street. She should walk in such a way that does not draw attention – preferably by creeping along next to the side the buildings.

A woman may not speak loudly or show her hands and is forced to cover her entire body with a double burqa.

"Cover your eyes properly. We don't want the Hisbah women to see us. I don’t want us to get in trouble," Om Mohammed whispers to her friend Om Omran as they walk along al-Rashid Street in central al-Raqqah.

Hisbah is ISIS's female religious police force.

Armed, and with unlimited power, they patrol the city's streets to ensure that women are wearing the "right" clothing.

Om Omran has trouble meeting the ISIS demand that women’s faces should be completely covered up. Not just because she finds it uncomfortable.

"I can't see anything if I cover up my eyes. I have poor eyesight. How am I supposed to see if I cover my eyes?" she asks worriedly.

Om Omran and Om Mohammad stop one of the city's taxis. They climb into the yellow car.

The taxi driver explains that he cannot have a female passenger on her own in the car.

"If I do that, the car will be impounded, I'll have to pay a fine and I'll be punished. She'll be punished too – they'll flog her," says the driver.

Normally people dare not criticise ISIS and its bloody Sharia rule.

But Om Omran and Om Mohammad suggest that something has happened to make more and more people dare to talk about the everyday problems.

The driver explains how his daughter was going to be punished for not wearing a niqāb.

"The interrogator wanted to fetch her – she was going to get 30 lashes out on the street," he explains.

"'Am I not her father?' I asked him. He said, 'yes.' 'Then I'm the one who punishes her. You don't punish her. She's my daughter.'"

The city church has gotten its cross blown away. Now the ISIS police building is located in the church.
Foto: Expressen
In the areas taken over by ISIS they make sure to blow up the churches or make them office spaces.
Foto: Expressen
Churches are not allowed to be built and church bells are banned. The Christians who are left in ISIS territories exercise their religions in silence and mostly in the privacy of their homes.
Foto: Expressen

The images we receive from inside al-Raqqah are unique. 

ISIS may have published their own films, but that is propaganda material, the purpose of which is to demonstrate their power and attract new volunteer fighters. Last year, ISIS allowed two journalists into their Caliphate – one into Mosul and one into al-Raqqah. They were shown people shopping at the market, seemingly just like normal, and they got to meet ISIS members who praised ISIS and the terror movement's military achievements.

Expressen’s hidden cameras show how the city's main church has been converted into the ISIS headquarters. The cross has been shattered.

Here lied the sanctuary of the mosque Uwais al-Qarani.

Other religious artefacts have been completely destroyed. All that remains of Uwais al-Qarani's shrine is a pile of rubble. Al-Qarani was important to both Sufis and Shia Muslims.

The city has an overwhelming air of sadness about it. Everything is black or dark. There is very little traffic. Occasional trucks, transporting oil tanks, drive through the city

on their way to other ISIS areas or the Turkish border.

It was one o'clock in the afternoon. I was at the window. I looked out and saw people wearing black, carrying black flags

Om Mohammad and Om Omran are busting the myth about the thriving Caliphate.

They explain that they were at home in their houses in al-Raqqah when ISIS invaded the city in August 2014.

"It was one o'clock in the afternoon. I was at the window. I looked out and saw people wearing black, carrying black flags. They shouted and screamed 'Allāhu Akbar!' The next day, the Battle of Raqqa was over," says Om Mohammad.

ISIS bought the loyalty of the al-Nusra Front's Emirs and executed everyone who refused to switch sides.

The Free Syrian Army's members – most of whom were soldiers who had defected from the regular army – fought until the bitter end. They knew they would be executed if they were captured by ISIS.

When their ammunition ran out, many of them chose to face death in the Euphrates River.

"Several hundred corpses floated to the surface. They were fished out by ISIS. They still had weapons hanging from their dead bodies. ISIS took the weapons and dumped the bodies back in the river. Any survivors were executed at the al-Na'im roundabout," says Om Mohammad.

250,000 people lived here before ISIS arrived.

Today a lot of them have fled.

Those who are left are used as human shields.

ISIS introduced its reign of terror gradually.

To begin with women were allowed to wear normal niqābs. They could go out without having to wear black gloves to cover their hands and they could show their eyes.

"But every week, after Friday prayers, people were given orders about the new rules that applied. It ended up with women being forced to wear gloves and double niqābs, and having to say at home," says Om Mohammad.

"Girls' schools were shut down. Teaching was dominated by Sharia studies. The entire old schooling system disappeared and was replaced with ISIS schools," says Om Mohammad.

Om Mohammad and Om Omran both had well paid jobs before ISIS arrived. Now they are forced to stay at home.

The entire social climate changed. Non-conformists and homosexuals are killed using brutal methods. The assaults rapidly got worse.

"One young man we know was accused of being homosexual. He was arrested and sent on a three-month Sharia course. We thought he would be pardoned after that. He was forced to memorise the Quran. But one day, people were summoned to a district of al-Raqqah to witness his execution. They asked people not to film it and not to call out 'Allāhu Akbar!' as he was a Muslim. He was punished despite the fact that he was a Muslim. They pushed him off the tallest building in the city," says Om Mohammad.

"The Thieves' District". Here lives the foreign members of ISIS – most of whom are from Europe.
Foto: Expressen
A class hierarchy has been created within ISIS depending on where the members come from. Syrians have the lowest status while those who come from Europe or the USA have a high status. Those are the ones who live in the "Thieves' Districts".
Foto: Expressen
"The Thieves' District" is the posh part of al-Raqqah. Before ISIS the most wealthy families lived here. They fled during the ISIS offensive.
Foto: Expressen

Om Mohammad asks the driver to stop near the "Thieves' District". It is the most upscale area of al-Raqqah, with expensive houses and big buildings.

Before the war, this is where the city's wealthier residents lived – many were pro-regime or businessmen doing business between Syria and Iraq.

"There are those who managed to flee, but others were killed," says Om Mohammad.

Now ISIS has taken over the apartments.

It looks like a ghost town. There are no people on the streets or outdoors.

But it is not just any old ISIS members who get to live there. Only the foreign ones. Syrian members are considered to have a lower status in the organisation.

Om Omran and Om Mohammad say that they know Syrian women and sons of neighbouring families who joined ISIS. They have no power. It is the foreign fighters who are in charge.

"Syrians are the errand boys in the organisation. Living in the nicest houses are Europeans, from France, Sweden and other countries," explains Om Mohammad.

In a day in the late summer of 2015 the terrorist organization ISIS took full control of all of al-Raqqah.
Foto: Expressen
All the government buildings were made into ISIS' own administration offices. Girl schools were closed down and replaced with sharia studies.
Foto: Expressen
All the buildings are occupied by ISIS terrorists.
Foto: Expressen

ISIS has created a reign of terror – a terror caliphate that everyone fears. They force people to follow orders and use medieval methods of punishment.

Caged prisoners are lowered into tanks and drowned. People are put into vehicles and shot at with RPG projectiles.

The executioners were lined up and dressed in black

Om Omran and Om Mohammad have seen and heard about all of the punishment methods.

"One day I was on my way to the market. There were crowds of people and the bus stopped. People asked the driver what was going on. He said he couldn't go any further. There was an execution taking place. It was at the al-Na'im roundabout," says Om Mohammad.

The driver said that anyone who wanted to disembark could, as it would be a long time before he could go any further.

"I got off the bus. People are curious and wanted to see. I saw that they had put a man on the ground. It was a young man – he was a soldier. He was on his knees and they had placed knives beside him.  The executioners were lined up and dressed in black. There were four or five of them. They shot him, and then they cut the head off his body. I tried to look, but I couldn't do it."

Om Mohammad's voice falters as she tells the story. She says that the young man sat completely still.

"It felt as if he was dead before they slaughtered him. He sat there completely still and without any reactions at all. There are rumours that prisoners are injected with sedatives."

Om Mohammad and Om Omran walk along what was once al-Raqqah's lively shopping street, al-Rashid.

They want to buy underwear and hair dye. It has been a while since they visited the market.

Here in the ISIS Caliphate, a woman's uncovered face is punishable. Even if it is just on the front of a packet of hair dye.

They step inside the shop that sells hair dye and makeup. There are rows and rows of hair dye, but on every packet the hair model's face has been scribbled out with a black marker.

"I want some hair dye," says Om Omran.

"You can see the colours on the packet," says the shop assistant.

"Do you think you can see the colour?" Om Omran says sarcastically.

"What's this? Have you covered it up?" asks Om Mohammad.

"Yes, we have," replies the male shop assistant.

"She's wearing a niqāb."

In the store which sells hair dye and make-up are rows of products, but on each package the female models faces have all been covered with black paint.
Foto: Expressen
The vendors have to follow the rules of ISIS: no pictures of women's faces on the products on the shelves.
Foto: Expressen

Om Omran and Om Mohammad buy the packet that is in the shop - it costs 600 Syrian pounds (approx. SEK 18).

They look for underwear. They go into another shop.

"It's not easy to know which shops sell women's underwear these days," Om Omran says to the female shopkeeper, who replies,

"The shops that have the blinds down, like here, sell women's clothes and underwear."

There are few ISIS members on the streets of al-Raqqah today. For several months now they have been very careful about how they move about. They try to conceal their weapons. They are scared of being detected by the surveillance or fighter aircraft circulating above.

On the street in front of Om Mohammad and Om Omran is a woman from Hisbah with her husband. Their child is in a pushchair. They are walking briskly.

To Om Mohammad and Om Omran, it is easy to see that the couple are not from Syria. All foreign ISIS recruits are armed and have Western things.

A Syrian ISIS member might look the other way when it comes to the way we dress. But foreign women are tougher

"Om Omran, are there a lot of them?" Om Mohammad wonders as she walks along right behind them.

"Yes, there's loads. You can find them throughout the city and throughout the province. A lot of women have joined Daesh (ISIS)."

Om Mohammad and Om Omran explain that foreign and European women in Hisbah have a higher status than Syrian members.

"If I walk along the street wearing high heels and coloured clothes and show my eyes, she will come over – armed, of course – and throw me in the car. Unlike Syrian women, foreign women have more power and a higher status. A Syrian ISIS member might look the other way when it comes to the way we dress. But foreign women are tougher," says Om Mohammad.

Om Omran and Om Mohammad visit one of the city's hospitals. They want to submit an application for permission to leave al-Raqqah.

"Are you here for a travel permit?" asks the ISIS guard.


"Come back tomorrow after the noon prayers," says the bearded man who is cleaning the steps of the run-down hospital.

"Tomorrow after the noon prayers? Is that a particular day for travel permits?"

"Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday," he replies.

The hospital is one of the places that is under constant watch by ISIS.
Foto: Expressen
Here lies the wounded members of ISIS who are getting treatment.
Foto: Expressen
ISIS' constant attempts to recruit doctors and medical personnel to their territories are failing. People are forced to get to Damascus or Turkey instead.
Foto: Expressen

Not far from the hospital is the al-Na'im roundabout, possibly al-Raqqah's most notorious place.

On YouTube there are a large number of gruesome execution videos that were filmed here.

At the roundabout, Om Omran and Om Mohammad stop at a street food vendor.

But the kitchen is closed. The owner has to get to the mosque.

"Women out in the city must sit down, regardless of where they are. They aren’t allowed to keep walking while the adhan is in progress,” says Om Mohammad.

"We have kebabs, chicken or koftas. You'll have to come back after the afternoon prayers," says the vendor.

"After the afternoon prayers?"


"We'll sit here and wait until you've finished praying," says Om Mohammad and sits down on the pavement.

While they wait, two ISIS members stand in front of them, talking. The wife of one of them waits silently at a distance.

Om Mohammad says to her friend,

"Om Omran, I'd like to ask you what this area means to you? What do you feel when you see it?"

"I feel fear and terror," says Om Omran.

The women discuss the punishments that al-Raqqah's women risk facing every day.

"They don't say what the woman's crime is. If they're going to stone her to death, they ask people to come to the roundabout to witness the execution. They let people come here and bring stones. When the Wāli (governor) throws the first stone, the others start throwing theirs."

Most of the bloody and public executions take place in this roundabout. The roundabout is places in the middle of the city of al-Raqqah and was named al-Naim by the municipality.
Foto: Expressen
ISIS has converted the roundabout to a hellish punishment spot. Here people are executed with guns, swords, knives, stones or through crucifixion. All the while "life as usual" goes on around it, with street trading and food stands.
Foto: Expressen
Because al-Naim is situated in the middle of al-Raqqah most people pass the roundabout several times a day.
Foto: Expressen

Here at the roundabout in front of them, hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people have been killed.

"Some bodies are laid out on the road. Then they force cars to drive over them until there's nothing left of the body. The body becomes like a rag," says Om Mohammad.

Om Mohammad and Om Omran have – just like the rest of al-Raqqah's women – lost everything.

Everything revolves around being able to escape now.

"All women like to show their face. We've lost that. We no longer feel like women. Like we're beautiful girls who can show our faces and who enjoy life," says Om Mohammad.

She explains that people have stopped going to the mosque and stay at home instead.

"People don't want to pray any more. They are forcing people to do it. They've driven people to hating prayers."

The shadowed area shows how much land ISIS has seized control of in 2015. The red indicates which areas are controlled by ISIS today.

But, this evil might be about to collapse.

"ISIS members confiscate civilians' ID cards and flee towards Turkey," says Om Mohammad.

The few remaining ISIS members on the streets are suspicious, cautious and conceal their weapons.

Facts about the war in Syria and ISIS

■ The war in Syria has entered its sixth year. In March of 2011 Syrians protested in Daraa in south Syria and demanded the release of arrested boys who had scribbled slogans against the regime. The protests spread rapidly to other areas i Syria,

■ Several parties are involved. The Muslim Brotherhood, Libanese Hizbollah and al-Qaida are some of several hundreds of militias who fight in Syria.

■ Today it's mostly al-Nusra, Jaish al-Islam and ISIS who have control in the rebel-controlled areas. They get support from regional powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The regime gets support from Hizbollah, Iran and Russia.

■ About six million Syrian children are affected by the war and live in the danger zone for violence, according to the UN. The countries healthcare has collapsed and the population is in deep poverty. The tragedy in Syria has developed into the world's largest humanitary catastrophy.

■ The terror group Islamic State is a Salafist-Jihadist group who strive to found an Islamic caliphate according to the first version of Islam. Its leader is Iraqi Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri.

■ Officially ISIS was founded three years ago but has existed under different names since 2004.

■ ISIS controls big areas in Syria, Iraq, Libya but also in Sina in Egypt and has active cells all over the world.

■ ISIS has been responsible for several terror attacks against civilian targets in the Arab world, but also in the West, for instance in Paris.

■ ISIS consists of mostly ex-soliders from Saddam Hussein's army but also of foreign jihadists from Europe, USA, Caucasus and other parts of the world. In Sweden alone 300 identified Swedish citizens fight for ISIS.

They are not as triumphant as they were a year ago. They have lost more than 30% of the areas they controlled back then. Several thousand members – maybe as many as 20,000 – have been killed in combat.

"Airstrikes have intensified lately. Foreign fighters set up temporary roadblocks and take the civilians' ID cards. They confiscate them so they can use them when they flee to Turkey," says Om Mohammad.

Om Omran and Om Mohammad are planning to leave the city, but it has been impossible so far. They have chosen to stay to help a friend who is in danger of being killed.

Om Mohammad explains that their friend became pregnant in a relationship that ISIS Sharia judges would consider impermissible.

"If she were to keep the child they would ask her about the child's father. What can she say? They would, of course, stone her to death, as the relationship is considered to be out of wedlock," says Om Mohammad.

Illegal, smuggled abortion pills were her only chance.

"We've had to organise pills for her. Pills that cost us a lot of money to get them into al-Raqqah."

"Everyone is monitored in al-Raqqah. They've registered all of the people who are still in the city. The only way to save her life was to do the abortion at home," explains Om Mohammad.

Now they share their friend's dream to escape one day. But the road goes through the desert and takes five days. They know that it is a journey that could cost them their lives. ISIS sets up temporary roadblocks. The smugglers charge high fees for helping.

There are two ways out of Raqqa. Those who have the opportunity to take the normal way out which takes at least 12 hours by bus need permission from ISIS to travel. The other way out is the smugglers' path. It takes at least five days – most of it in the desert – before they get to safety. The desert path is incredibly dangerous.

"I know several people who have died on that road. ISIS, other rebel groups and the regime have laid mines in the area. No one knows exactly where."

"People who can afford it pay Bedouins from the desert, who know about less dangerous areas," says Om Mohammad.

The other route out of al-Raqqah is the "legal" one – a bus from al-Raqqah to Damascus, and back again.

The seriously ill, people who cannot receive the care they need in al-Raqqah, can get written permission to travel to Damascus.

The permit covers two people – the sick person and one relative. Before you can get permission, one of the ISIS doctors must examine the patient and give their approval.

"It's not a proper doctor. He's a pharmacist. And his approval must be validated by Hisbah," says Om Mohammad.

Here people apply for doctors permission to travel to Damascus. It is the city's clinic centre.
Foto: Expressen
When you apply for permission to travel you have to be examined by a physician to be able to know if you really need medical assistance outside of al-Raqqah. He/she who examine the people is an apothecary and not a doctor.
Foto: Expressen

Most of the people who take that bus are women and children. Before the bus leaves, women are forced to buy a new niqāb and leave their old one with the Hisbah police at the bus station.

"They are also forced to donate blood before they can get the permit. If they can't give blood, there are unemployed men hanging around outside the hospital who are willing to sell their own blood," explains Om Mohammad.

Back home, and behind closed doors, Om Mohammad enjoys removing her niqāb and letting her long hair flow more freely.

"I long for the time when I can remove both the niqāb and the darkness that comes with it, permanently. I long to be able to dress as I want, like I used to do before. I long to walk down streets without being scared and without seeing weapons or foreigners who scare us. I want to live the way I want. I want to buy what I want. I want to go out alone, free and without having a guardian with me."

"Nothing matters more than freedom," says Om Mohammad.

Oum Mohammad, whose real name is something else, smuggled Expressen's camera into al-Raqqah.
Foto: Expressen
"I long for when I can take off both the niqab and the darkness that it brings", she says.
Foto: Expressen
She takes off ther coverture and says: "I long for when I can dress as I used to".
Foto: Expressen

Translator: Laura Åkerblom

IN SWEDISH: Kvinnornas förbjudna filmer avslöjar livet i huvudstaden

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