Syrian refugees on the border between Syria and Turkey, in Kilis. (AFP)
Sanlıurfa (Turkey) – When the ISIS terrorist group captured the Syrian city of Raqqa and announced it as its de facto capital in June 2014, Mona Freij was an opposition activist who was organizing anti-regime rallies with her fellow colleagues.
Months later, she was forced to leave the city for fear of being arrested by ISIS terrorists.
Today, she resides in Turkey’s Gaziantep city near the Syrian border where her house has been turned into a hub for making banners for the “save Raqqa’s civilians” campaign that she launched with several activists from the Syrian city.
The campaign, which kicked off in mid-June, is aimed at organizing rallies and protests in various Turkish provinces and in the world to demand that civilians be kept clear of the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS.
Around a hundred protesters took part in a rally that was staged in Gaziantep on June 18.
Freij told Asharq Al-Awsat that the campaign was launched shortly after the battle for Raqqa began. A campaign hashtag on Twitter has generated around 800,000 followers.
“We are demanding that that the civilians be granted safe passage,” she added.
“We want to tell the international community that the Raqqa residents are not a social base for ISIS and they are not members of the organization. They simply were born in that city,” she stressed.
Activists and the United Nations estimate that around 150,000 civilians are caught in the crossfire in Raqqa. Some 300,000 had lived under ISIS’ rule, 80,000 of whom were displaced from other Syrian regions. Thousands have since fled the city when the battle to liberate it began.
Saleh, another Raqqa resident who has been living in Turkey’s Sanlıurfa for the past three years, said that several of his relatives are still trapped in the Syrian city.
In Sanlıurfa, he has opened a vegetable shop to provide for his family. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “My two brothers and my two sisters and their children are still trapped in the old neighborhood that is under ISIS control.”
He said that he constantly checks his telephone for any messages from his loved ones, which means that they are still safe.
According to Turkish Interior Ministry figures, Sanlıurfa province hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at around 400,000. The majority are from Raqqa and Deir al-Zour.
On April 18, some 100 social and clan figures from Raqqa established a civilian council to manage the province after the expulsion of ISIS. Sheikh Mahmoud al-Bursan and activist Leila Mustafa have been elected to its joint presidency. Three lawmakers have also been elected to the council.
Mustafa told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian Democratic Forces pledged to hand over the administration of Raqqa after its liberation to the civil council.
“We have formed local councils in each liberated region and we have taken up the town of Ain Issa as our temporary headquarters,” she revealed.
“Once Raqqa is liberated, the council will be restructured to include representatives from throughout the province, without marginalizing anyone, so that it can be an example of coexistence,” she stressed.
So far, 14 specialized councils have been established to restore the operation of various services, including security. In fact, the internal security forces has already deployed police officers in the majority of the villages and towns that have been liberated, said Mustafa.