At first we didn’t recognise our friend. He had lost more than 10kg and had trouble standing up. His face was the colour of a ripe lemon, his clothes as filthy as if he had just climbed out of a tomb. Could that really be Mohammad?
A week ago the 30-year-old pharmacist had been abducted in an Aleppo suburb by Islamic State. Most of his friends had assumed that Mohammad (not his real name) was gone for ever. “No one goes into Isis prisons and comes out alive, especially those who are accused of being secularists,” his friend Rand said. Mohammad is a devout Muslim, but for Isis a secularist is simply anyone who dares stand up to them.
The irony is that while Mohammad is a dangerous secularist in the eyes of Isis, the west sees him as a dangerous Islamist. After Isis occupied some Aleppo suburbs, Mohammad and many other medics decided not to leave their home town but to continue helping local people – despite the risk and personal sacrifice involved. Yet they now find themselves treated as terrorists wherever they go, simply because they have come from Isis-occupied territories. Last month Mohammad and a group of doctors were not allowed into Turkey, although their passports are valid. A border guard told them to “go back to your Islamic State”.
In a way Mohammad is lucky. Not only did he manage to run away from an Isis prison, he also doesn’t have to travel abroad, where the entire world would treat him as a terrorist until proved innocent. “You are all terrorists to the Americans,” the manager of a bank in the Turkish city of Gaziantep told me yesterday, explaining the new ban of US dollar transfers to Syrian-held accounts.
At least she bothered to explain. Last summer I received a call from the American consulate in Istanbul telling me that my two-year visa was cancelled. Apparently they were not authorised to give me the reasons why. I travelled to the US twice last year with an organisation that is registered there, and I have an international press card, a valid visa to the UK and a track record of working for the BBC: all that didn’t save me from the suspicion of being a potential terrorist. A friend who works in the US told me that I probably wouldn’t have faced these problems living in Turkey. “But you live inside Syria, so you are most probably a criminal in one way or another.”
When my flight landed at London’s Heathrow airport last December, police came on to the plane and called for a woman with an Arabic-sounding name. I panicked and started deleting unveiled pictures of myself on my phone. It took a few seconds to remember that I wasn’t at an Isis checkpoint in Syria. So I closed the photo gallery and went on to delete some of the patriotic anthems on the device, in case their Islamic messages could be taken as proof of me being a terrorist. Then another reality check: the name called out wasn’t mine. Later, in the terminal, I cried my eyes out.
Well, maybe they are right, maybe I am a terrorist? A terrorist who decided to leave her work as a broadcast journalist in a highly respected media outlet to go back home and help people under attack from Assad’s barrel bombs. I am a terrorist who is attached to life yet chose to face death on a daily basis, in the name of freedom and human rights.
I have seven friends in Isis prisons, kidnapped long before the rest of the world took notice of this terrorist group. I lost others who were fighting Isis in January 2014, trying to kick the militants out of Edlib and Aleppo provinces. Abo Younis, the sweetheart doctor of Bustan al-Qasr medical centre, was executed with 40 others in Aleppo’s eye hospital after it was taken as a base by Isis in 2013. In addition, there are all the great friends who have died under torture in Assad’s prisons, or while resisting his tyranny.
And now, with our city divided by warring factions, the skies above our heads are filled with terror too. An 11-year-old relative of mine was recently killed by a coalition air strike in Ein Shib, a suburb of the city of Edlib. Ahmad had lost his father last year, so he and his sister were living with their grandfather, who is a high-level member of the al-Nusra Front. Since the coalition strikes started, 35 fighters from Aleppo and two big battalions from Edlib have joined Isis.
Amid all the geopolitical wranglings and fear of returning jihadists wreaking terror in Europe, it is the stories of ordinary Syrians that are being forgotten: people who were terrorised first by a dictator who wanted all those who didn’t support him dead, then by foreign jihadists coming from all over the world to occupy our country, and now by the “collateral damage” of coalition air strikes. And you call us terrorists?
This article is published in the Guardian on the 17-02-2015