In the eastern countryside of Hama, a group of towns and villages continue to chafe under ISIS rule, seemingly forgotten amidst other conflicts taking place across Syria. Much of the eastern Hama countryside, serving as a crossroad between the countrysides of Homs, Raqqa and Aleppo; fell under ISIS rule in 2014. Three years on, the group continues to control them even as its territories elsewhere in Iraq and Syria are shrinking rapidly.
The relative isolation of the region has contributed to to its status as a “forgotten” part of the conflict. The region is rural, mountainous and sparsely populated. Distant from any major urban centre or strategic faultline, it has not garnered any major attention from any of Syria’s warring factions. News of what life is like there comes from displaced people like Abu Ali who fled his hometown of Aqayribat (also known as Uqayribat or Uqayrbat) and is now living in northern Idlib. His accounts paint a stark picture of life under the group.
According to Abu Ali, one of the most prevalent issues are diseases. Due to lack of vaccination campaigns in areas under ISIS control, many diseases previously thought eliminated have made a comeback. The province of Deir ez-Zour is in the grips of a Polio outbreak. Here in Hama, one of Abu Ali’s children suffered from a severe case of measles, with no medical assistance or treatment available. Despite its pretensions of providing governance and healthcare to areas under its control, ISIS failed to provide anything.
What they did provide, was plenty of brutality. Abu Ali recalls an instance when the Hisba, ISIS’ religious police, announced that they had captured a thief and amputated one of his hands as punishment. To this day, Abu Ali does not know what the man stole. He himself came under scrutiny when the Hisba caught him smoking. He was subjected to a 20-Day “Sharia Session” which, he says, was anything but. Abu Ali says that instead of being lectured on Sharia, he was constantly questioned about where he got the cigarette from. He was bemused that the militants seemed more concerned about how he smoked a cigarette.
Clashes between ISIS and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) are sporadic but brutal. The SAA, at present, is more concerned with holding its positions along the Salamiya-Aleppo Highway to the north. It launches airstrikes at eastern Hama whenever it feels ISIS might threaten its hold on the highway. One of these airstrikes in December 2016 allegedly killed 100 people in Aqayribat. ISIS militants, in turn, attempt to break through SAA lines to commit massacres in government-held villages in central Hama, as was the case in a particularly brutal attack in late-May.
And through it all, ordinary people continue to suffer.