In almost unbearably graphic prose, Samer – a pseudonym – describes a place in which atrocities are everyday, and life barely tolerable. Children walk to school past crucifixes from which decapitated bodies hang. Food is becoming scarcer and more expensive; electricity is rationed; rubbish piles up on the deserted streets.
Raqqa is an isolated place. IS destroys satellite dishes, intercepts landline calls, can trace mobile phone calls, and strictly supervises internet cafes. Unauthorised discussions with journalists are punishable by death.
We know what we know about life in Raqqa because political activists like Samer risk communicating with the foreign media.
Before his escape Samer would regularly visit an internet cafe and, under the noses of IS supervisors, send out encrypted reports for translation and broadcast by the BBC.
He and his fellow activists are determined to keep the world informed about events in Syria, mindful of 1982,when Hafez al-Assad killed as many as 20,000 people in the city of Homs, in what may be the most under-reported massacre in history.
IS is as hypocritical as it is cruel, with one set of rules for itself, and another for those whom it governs. Fighters punish civilians found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts by throwing them from the tops of tall buildings, while jihadis guilty of similar sexual offences receive only a lashing.
Militants flaunt their relative prosperity amidst the deepening poverty.
They receive a good salary, live in decent accommodation – often in houses hurriedly vacated by Christians and Shia as the jihadis swept in – and have access to cars. Samer describes a host of fighters descending on a cafe and buying the best the place has to offer, while he munches on humble fare he can barely afford.
The relentless bombing terrifies fighters and civilians alike. Raqqa’s hospital is closed to civilians, such are the numbers of fighters requiring treatment. IS is forcing children to go to the front lines as the end approaches.
One day Samer learns that his name is on a list: IS has begun arresting people who took part in the demonstrations against Assad, fearing perhaps that the activists could become the nucleus of an uprising as the jihadis prepare to make a last stand.
The courageous young man escaped the city, moving along back roads and bluffing his way past IS checkpoints; the friends and relatives he has left behind face a future of siege and starvation.