A Hellish Return: Imprisoned by ISIS, Shunned by Society

There was no happy ending for the citizens of Raqqa after ISIS was defeated and withdrew its forces from the area: the occupation’s effects still linger, casting their shadows over people’s lives. The worst affected are the women, who suffered all kinds of abuse and violence during those dark days, including arrest and even murder.

Um Mohammad, from Raqqa, was arrested without reason or explanation and spent two hellish months in an ISIS prison. When she was released, she found herself entrapped in another prison cell, this time confined by the social stigma that followed her out into her daily life. Neighbors shunned her and even her children, despite the horrors she had endured at her captors’ hands and the fact that her husband had endured punishment as well.

Speaking to Ayni Aynak, Um Mohammad said: “I suffered a lot because of the ISIS occupation of our town. They made me and my children homeless, they murdered my husband, they displaced us entirely. They used tactics to humiliate and dominate us, to impose their authority on us, such as dictating what clothes we were allowed to wear and decreeing that a woman’s very voice was obscene and thus should not be heard.”

“I was abused physically, emotionally, and psychologically,” she said of her time in prison. “I was starving, exhausted, and ill. By the end of each day I was on the ground writhing with hunger as they shouted curses at me, and all I could do was pray to God for help and patience.”

When her incarceration ended, Um Mohammad found no one to welcome or comfort her. Instead, she found that her real suffering was only just beginning. Speaking through her tears, she said: “I started to notice the way people looked at me, and this didn’t stop even after the ISIS forces withdrew. They looked at me like I was an immoral woman, with a soiled reputation, like I had done something, as they say here, ‘to hang men’s heads in shame and disgrace.’ Even though I had done nothing wrong. I was like so many others, guilty of nothing, no sin.”

“I was shunned,” she continues, “by society, by my relatives and neighbors. They all saw me as a whore.”

The awful treatment didn’t stop at mere ostracism or harsh words: it extended into every aspect of her daily life and that of her children. “They reviled me so much they forbade their children from playing with mine,” says Um Mohammad. “One time my son was playing with a neighbor’s son in the courtyard of the house,” she recalls, “and when his mother saw this, she ran over screaming at both boys, and then she began shouting at me, screaming into my face at the top of her lungs, saying, ‘this woman was an ISIS prisoner, no one should speak to her or her children.’”

Um Mohammad finds herself at a loss. She had suffered so much hardship only to find herself staring into the abyss of an unknown future. “Even the vendors and shopkeepers refuse to deal with me,” she says. “The neighbors shun me, my relatives have cut me off, I have no idea what to do.” She trails off, trying to regain control over her emotions, to gather her courage anew.

Today, she lives in a dark place, like so many other women prisoners, closed in on herself and her children, after having endured so much to return to them. She is more and more impoverished, without home or shelter, without anyone to provide for her or lend so much as a helping hand.

Ayah Mohammad