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Execution: The Price of Leaving Syrian Regime Areas in Deir-ez-Zor

Around 150,000 residents in regime-held districts of Deir-ez-Zor are living in prison-like conditions as they face siege by the Islamic State group, while those who are able to flee from the regime's hell remain uncertain they will escape execution at the hands of ISIS members
Execution: The Price of Leaving Syrian Regime Areas in Deir-ez-Zor

"If you find yourself in the unknown, it's better than the life we were living" — with these words, Bakr, one of those who fled the Joura neighborhood on foot, describes risking his life escaping the besieged districts of Deir-ez-Zor. He described the neighborhood before he fled as resembling "a big prison whose inmates were awaiting a slow death."

Everyone there is exhausted: "There's no electricity, no drinking water, and even bread has become scarce." All services have been stopped for a year and a half, specifically since March 2015, the date the Islamic State group announced its siege on the areas under Syrian regime control in Deir-ez-Zor — Joura, Qasour and Harabash.

These three districts included more than 250,000 civilians at the time, but now the number of those who remain does not exceed 150,000 people.

Exit routes could only be passed officially by presenting a request to the governor or the military commander, Essam Zaher Eddin. At the time approvals were given to "specific people" who were close to the regime or its militias, Bakr explained, adding that there were long lines including thousands of people standing every day waiting for permission to leave the "hell," with only a small number of them able to obtain stamped papers allowing them to cross.

Smuggling prices up to 150,000 Syrian pounds

Bakr, who was studying to complete his university degree before fleeing for fear of being conscripted into the ranks of President Bashar al-Assad's forces and militias, "succeeded in escaping regime-controlled areas after three failed attempts, but that cost me 150,000 pounds [$700]."

When he arrived at ISIS' checkpoints in the Hesan area, he explained, "They separated the men from the women and took each of them to a separate prison, where they interrogated us for more than two days before letting us go after confiscating all official documents in our possession and tearing up our university degrees and other official documents which we were carrying, while fighters forced us to sign a vow to attend a Shariah course after a few days."

Bakr considers himself lucky that he was eventually able to flee to an area far from the regime and ISIS. However, he still wonders about the fate of seven young men who were with him. "We were seven guys in the prison and only two of us were able to escape — I was one of them."

Among the missing were four of Bakr's closest friends: Ibrahim, in the third year studying economics, Mamoun, in the fourth year studying science, Abdel Majid, in the fourth year studying law, and Faisal, in the third year of his veterinarian studies. Bakr has not received any information about them since his escape on Nov. 28, 2015, while ISIS has announced the execution of some it said it proved were working with the Assad regime.

Bakr did not comply with ISIS demands to attend the Shariah course — he immediately fled to another area where he lived for a while under a false name out of fear that ISIS members would pursue him. "Some of those who attended [the Shariah course] were sent to military courses and closed camps, and many of them never returned."

At the time, ISIS was gathering people who left the besieged areas and transported them to the town of Maadan to force them to undergo a 40-day Shariah course.

"Inside the investigation center we were subjected to all types of accusations, but the most dangerous was a previous affiliation with the National Defense Force militias and fighting in the ranks of the regime forces. We were subjected to intense and exhausting interrogation," Bakr said.

Today the besieged districts are nearly closed off and there is no gateway in or out except by helicopter, as regime forces have prevented all civilians from exiting — especially young men who have been prisoners inside their homes out of fear of being conscripted by the regime and its militias.

Price of crossing is 'execution'

Every so often ISIS announces that it has executed one of its prisoners after leaving the Joura district — always on charges of communicating with the regime.

Mohamed, one of the Islamic State’s former prisoners, said no one knew how credible the group’s announcements were, whether the date of the death or its reasons were correct, or even if there was proof of the charge. He added that many of the prisoners had died under interrogation and that ISIS had become experts in ways of torture, using different means such as knives, scissors, sharp blades, electric drills and iron nails, in addition to sleep deprivation and severe beatings.

Mohamed was released following a two-month investigation over accusations of communicating with the Free Syrian Army or the "Sahwa" and "apostates," as the group called them.

Mohamed still wakes from his sleep terrified, with memories of what ISIS members did to him during his imprisonment. He says: "One night the group's fighters ordered us to ride in a KIA pickup. There were 10 of us prisoners, blindfolded, and there were several fighters with us threatening to kill us and shooting near us and passing knives over our throats. They were talking about taking us out to the wilderness, to an unpopulated area far away to kill us."

He still does not know if the threats were real or only to scare them. All he remembers is that the car stopped in the middle of the road where he escaped on foot with the rest of the prisoners, asking, "Was it their way of setting us free or did we actually flee?"

Unknown fate

There is a list of dozens of names of those whose fate remains unknown. The announcement of their deaths may be a final mercy for them and those who await news of them.

While those are the numbers reported by some activists, the real number remains only in the possession of ISIS, and the fate of hundreds of prisoners is shrouded in mystery and hanging by a thread in the hands of the organization's fighters, pinned to the hope that news will one day arrive.

After more than a year and a half, Bakr still believes that the people of Deir-ez-Zor have paid dearly for their crossing and may still be paying today. He still tries to learn of any news of his friends, while Mohamed tries to live with the nightmares which have become part of him and his city.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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