IWPR – Institute for War and Peace Reporting (Author)
Mariam and her four children huddled together in a corner of their home as the military planes circled overhead. As each bomb exploded, they shut their eyes and screamed in terror.
It was around ten in the morning one day in late November 2014, when government airstrikes on Islamic State-controlled Raqqa were reaching their peak.
Mariam tried to encircle her children with her arms. The phone rang incessantly, but no one dared get up to answer it.
Suddenly, a moment of calm – the noise of the planes stopped. They looked warily into each another’s eyes, but it was only a pause before another airstrike took place.
“Mama, Mama!” the children screamed, as their mother held them tighter and screamed along with them.
The jets made a murderous, terrifying sound. A few awful seconds of suspense, then the impact of a bomb that landed no more than a few metres away. The wall collapsed almost on top of them and the air filled with dust.
The sound of the telephone ringing finally roused Mariam, who ran to pick it up.
“Are you all right?” asked her husband, his voice choked with tears.
“It was a very close hit,” Mariam shouted back.
Her husband told her to leave the house with the children, and said he was on his way over there in the taxi he drove. Mariam covered her head with a veil and ushered her children out, their faces and bodies blotched with dust as if emerging from the rubble of an earthquake.
Mariam did not even think about who she might encounter in the street. Who can foresee anything in such an atmosphere of death?
But you must, in a place where Islamic State holds sway.
Mariam wore a baggy dress, as was traditional in Raqqa, but her loose veil clearly revealed her hair. The state of terror she was in meant she had paid no attention to her appearance.
Once out on the street, however, an Islamic State militant pounced on her like a wolf that had spotted its prey.
“Cover yourself up, female!” he screamed at Mariam. “How dare you go out on the streets looking like that?”
Dressed all in black with his face concealed, and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, the militant looked like he was barely 18 years old. He was unmoved by the terrified faces of the crying children.
Mariam had no idea what this teenager wanted. Her eyes were turned up to the sky, where the planes were still flying overhead.
He came closer, screaming louder. “You must respect God, female! Where’s your niqab [face veil]?”
A mix of fear and frustration in her voice, Mariam answered, “You are the one who should have some respect for God! Can’t you see what’s happening?”
“I can see you’re out in the street,” he said, “and if you don’t put your niqab on I’ll report you to the hisbah [morality police].”
“Have pity,” said Mariam. “We were about to die. Didn’t you see where the bomb landed?”
“OK, you clearly don’t understand,” he said, raising his walkie-talkie to his mouth.
Mariam couldn’t hear what he said into it, because the thunder of the planes drowned out all other sounds. She grabbed her children, scanning the street for her husband to arrive in his taxi.
Some neighbours emerged from their houses and Mariam appealed to them for help. They approached the militant, and warned him that they might all die together if they continued standing out in the street, as the area was still being targeted from the air.
“None of you respect God,” he replied carelessly. “When the hisbah arrives, you can speak to them.”
The argument went on for five minutes, as Mariam scanned both the sky for aircraft and the road for her husband’s car. She had no thought for her own wellbeing; she just wanted her children to be safe.
Mariam finally saw her husband’s car at the end of the street, and was overcome by relief despite the continuing noise of the planes. Her husband arrived and climbed out of the car, weeping. Mariam and her children ran to him.
“To the car, now!” he yelled.
The militant leapt in between them.
“Where? Where are you going? Are you her husband?” he asked.
Mariam’s husband looked at him, astonished. “Yes,” he replied.
From inside the car, Mariam watched her husband and sobbed in fear. She would blame herself if anything terrible happened to him.
She watched as he approached the militant, and became increasingly fearful as he husband gesticulated, clearly unable to understand what the militant wanted.
The militant repeated his question. “Are you her husband?”
“Yes, I’m her husband. What do you want with her?”
“Don’t you have any honour? How can you accept that your wife goes out of the house like that?” asked the militant.
When Mariam’s husband heard these words, rage, frustration and sadness were all visible on his face.
He took a step closer to the militant and dealt him a slap across the face that brought the teenager to his knees. The militant remained where he fell, utterly shocked, watching Mariam’s husband, who spat defiantly, “You can come after me if you think you’re man enough.”
He got into the car and drove off. Mariam squeezed his hand and sobbed. But she felt such a thrill from this victory that, just for a moment, she forgot her fear.
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.