Review | The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State by Samer*


The Raqqa Diaries - Samer* Published by Cornerstone
 - I was kindly sent a copy by the publishers -

 I think it's fair to say that I'm not alone when I say I know little to nothing about Syria. I know it's bad, I know people are dying and I know ISIS is involved. That's about the extent of it. And because like me, most people don't really know what's happening it's very hard to actually form an opinion more nuanced than 'this is shit and we should help', or in some cases 'this is shit, and not our problem.'

 The Raqqa Diaries is the testimony of Samer, not his real name, a 24 year old man living in the city of Raqqa, territory that is completely occupied and controlled by ISIS. We watch as he attempts to make a life for himself in a city where the economy has been destroyed by heavy and seemingly arbitrary taxes, people are publicly beaten and executed for crimes such as 'wearing trousers that are too long', and all contact with the outside world is cut off under threat of death. From all that, Samer and his fellow activists have managed to smuggle out his account of life under the rule of ISIS.

 If the idea of struggling through a dry and heavy piece of non-fiction is daunting, please don't be put off. The Raqqa Diaries is actually incredibly engaging and accessible. The narrative is broken up into short fragments describing a few scenes from his life, and it is presented with these sparse but powerful illustrations that really add texture to his words.

 It is such a critical piece of media, because it adds a sense of humanity to the glimpses of war torn streets that we see on the news. It is so easy to allow ourselves to see something so alien and so far away, and forget that the people involved are human beings. Judith Butler (social humanities scholar and general hot bitch in charge) wrote a book called Frames of War in which she argues against the way in which we show war and strife in the media, how we encourage this dehumanising and othering of the people involved. The Raqqa diaries rails against this overarching scope of complex blame-gaming and political tip-toeing and shows, through the eyes of a single person, the horrors that make up the day to day lives of the people living through it all.

 It's also incredibly important to understand this when we talk about 'dealing with Syria', I genuinely once had a conversation with a man on twitter who said that bombing Syria was a no brainer, because there was nobody left down there but ISIS. This seemed like a ridiculous thing to say to me, but in reality the coverage of Syria and the people living there is so sparse and so vague that maybe someone really could think that.(Partly because, as Samer says, foreign journalists have no access to these places and contacting them from the inside is incredibly dangerous) I hope this book falls into that man's hands and he has a chance to see that the innocent people of Raqqa and places like it have quite enough to deal with without us dropping shit on them from the sky (which the Russians are already doing constantly and which, as Samer shows, actually forces the people of Raqqa to endure heavier oppression. Big help guys.) 

 I think the biggest shock for me is that this is what many of the refugees who come to our country have had to face, this is what they have escaped, and what we, as a country, have said is "No, you can't come here, we won't give you somewhere safe to live." I think this should be on our required reading, it is engaging and accessible enough to absolutely keep the attention of a GCSE student, far more so than bloody 'Of Mice and Men.' Reading this and discussing what it must be like to live in Raqqa, talking about how things got to this point, and asking why we and countries like us aren't doing anything about it would be an excellent way to spend a few PSHE lessons. Rather than the usual 'Read this sheet on what BMI is, then do whatever for forty minutes while I catch up with my marking'. 

So in short: Please read this, it's not very long and it's very very interesting and if we all knew more about what people were facing in ISIS occupied cities then maybe we could have a more educated and conscious discussion about it which might lead to change. Samer has escaped and is now in a miserable refugee camp along with hundreds of others stuck in limbo, with little food or shelter and next to nothing in the way of medical aid or prospects of getting to safety. And there are thousands upon thousands of men, women and children who are not so lucky.

Thanks for reading

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