A Wary Return to Raqqa
by Yassin al-Haj Saleh-BERLIN – In mid-October, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed, predominantly Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, “liberated” my hometown, Raqqa, from Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. Arabs, a majority of the region’s population, had little to do with ISIS’s ouster. In a city where locals have long been relegated to second-class status, the triumph of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the Syrian branch of the PKK – has kindled fears that history is repeating.
Activists from Raqqa have long referred to our dilapidated city as an “internal colony,” owing to its long history of economic, political, and social marginalization at the hands of Syrian governments. In the early 1970s, Raqqa – then small and poor – was nonetheless moving forward and flourishing. Schools were multiplying as attendance surged. Other public services were improving as well, and parents believed that their children would lead more prosperous lives than they and previous generations had.
This was certainly true of my parents, who sacrificed a lot to raise their nine children. They were not happy when, in the 1970s, their older sons became communists, strongly opposing the brutal regime of Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s father. But this was not a farfetched transformation in a city where people were assuming new identities – such as Nasserist, Baathist, Islamist, or communist – downplaying their regional and tribal origins.
But by the time I was arrested in 1980, as a university student in Aleppo, the future my parents once envisioned had begun to vanish. Five years later, another son was arrested, followed by a third six months after that. Our mother died of cancer while the three of us were in prison, hardly exceptional for Syrians at the time. We were among many from across the political and ideological spectrum who were arrested and tortured for daring to oppose the Assad regime. Syrians suffered from extreme repression, with people denied the right to assemble or even to discuss issues publicly, and the country was reduced to a political desert.
I didn’t get out of jail until 1996, when I was 35. Returning to Raqqa then, after 16 years behind bars, I was struck by what Assad’s regime – 26 years in power at that time – had done to my city. There was no trace of political life, no public debate, no young people talking about the books they were reading or the films they were watching. Before my arrest, Raqqa had three cinemas. By the time I was released, there was only one, used mostly for weddings.
The cult of Hafez had, by then, replaced Syrians’ free will. The elder Assad’s images were ubiquitous; among the first landmarks to greet me upon my release was a huge statute of the president. The walls were covered in vapid quotations from the hollow speeches of “the master of the nation.”