Mohamed Omar Sweid sits outside his home in the town of Bizaah, located east of al-Bab in Syria’s Aleppo Province. Bizaah was taken over by ISIS in November 2013 and was controlled by the group until February 2017, when Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels launched the Euphrates Shield operations to capture the town and the surrounding region.
Mohamed was one of many people in the region who lived under ISIS occupation. In Mohamed’s case, this was for more than three years at the height of the group’s rule. He has suffered both during and after ISIS’ occupation, and is forced to live with the psychological aftereffects of this dark past.
One day in 2016, Mohamed recalls standing in a mechanic’s shop when ISIS militants entered and subsequently asked him some questions. He then left with the militants only to be blindfolded and taken to one of the group’s Sharia courts, where people would be interrogated and charged, often for crimes they didn’t commit.
The court accused him of being sympathetic to the FSA, who were fighting ISIS and taking areas near Bizaah at the time, claiming that he would “set up speakers and play music joyfully for their arrival”. Despite denying the charges, Mohamed was once again blindfolded and beaten again and again.
Fearing another beating, Mohamed admitted to the charge and was subsequently taken away to prison. There, he was told that he would be put to death.
With the scars of the past still etched onto his appearance, Mohamed recalls how he spent approximately 130 days in prison with 18 other men. Week-by-week, Mohamed remembers how one of the men would be taken out and killed, always expecting the next week to be his time.
“Every time they opened the door I thought that that day was my turn,” said Mohamed. “We were 18 people and every week they took someone and killed him”.
Eventually 16 people had been killed, leaving Mohamed and one other young man in the cell. However, ISIS militants later killed the young man leaving Mohamed alone.
As the last man left in the cell, Mohamed knew the following week would be his last. But for Mohamed, fortunately, FSA fighters had reached the town. One Sunday, he recalls, after afternoon prayers, “someone opened the door and asked me if I was Mohamed and said that I would be released”.
Although Mohamed still remembers his dark past under ISIS control, he smiles as he holds his daughter, calling his family’s happiness at his survival as an “indescribable joy”.
Mohamed now knows that he can now look to the future free of ISIS and believes his release from prison is “all thanks to God”.