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A Syrian teen's tale of torture and death in an Islamic State town

A young Syrian woman was lucky to make it out alive after standing up to the Islamic State. Her friend wasn't so lucky.

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Rim Alif sitting in a cafe during an interview in a town in southeastern Turkey. She was detained for more than two months by IS for staging small but courageous acts of protest against the group. Today she works in a tissue factory but dreams of playing in the violin.

Dominique Soguel

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Rim Alif (not her real name) may be young but she's no stranger to the risks of defying authority. When the Islamic State took control of her hometown of Minbaj in northern Syria she was just 17. Before then, she had organized and participated in scores of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Today Ms. Alif belongs to a small universe of Syrian teenagers who managed to defy IS and lived to tell the tale.

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After the IS takeover Ms. Alif, a devout Muslim, was horrified by the group's approach to the faith, its draconian dictates, and its rules prohibiting girls from studying. Alif and a group of friends decided to take action, which was when her nightmare of beatings, stress positions and other forms of torture began.

“We formed this small team to fight IS,” recalls Alif, who works in a cramped, overheated tissue factory in southern Turkey. "We wanted to send the message that we are against them, that we don’t want them in our town. That they are disfiguring Islam.” Mostly they spray-painted anti-IS slogans around town. Alif is still haunted by the image of a 15-year-old boy crucified on a tree and left to rot for days.

On a crisp morning in May 2014 Alif unfolded the tricolor flag of the Syrian revolution in front of the Islamic State court as her friends documented the act and kept an eye out for IS militants. She tried to mask her identity — donning a black niqab, wearing high heels and speaking in a raspy voice. It all lasted a few seconds.

But shortly thereafter she drew the attention of an IS militant while wiping a smudge off her abaya. He latched onto her purse and demanded identification, then took her in for questioning. Her interrogator, a masked man who would torment her for the weeks to come, introduced himself as Abu Zubeir and spoke to her with unsettling familiarity, an Islamic State Torquemada.

“I am so pleased that you came to me on your own,” he leered. “What would you like to confess to?"

When they ordered her to the basement, the tiny framed young woman fainted. As bad as the Assad regime was, it was rare for security forces to detain girls as that would trigger a massive backlash in tribal towns like Minbaj. With the regime, one could pull strings or pay a corrupt official. But not with IS. “No one would have dared,” explains Alif. She shared a cell with a handful of women for two days before being put in solitary confinement. 

Two weeks in, under the pressure of torture and after being confronted with incriminating images restored from her memory cards, she confessed and named her friends, including their leader, a dentist called Huda. “The hitting and the hanging, the fact that I hadn’t eaten in three days, all the time I spent in a place so tiny that you could only sit or stand but not lie down, made me confess,” she says, brown eyes clouding.

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Her treatment improved after that confession, but she still had to endure two more months of interrogation and a marriage proposal from a prison guard. Then she was released. But there were terrible consequences.

Huda was also detained. Placed in adjacent rooms, the two friends tapped on the walls to comfort each other for a time. But then Huda went silent. Late one night, guards came to fetch her friend, saying in a taunting voice: “Don’t you want to come out? We’ll take you to a place where you can truly rest and relax.” They later told Alif that Huda was dead.

She fled to Turkey after her release in January 2015. There are few joys here. Alif earns $140 a month, complementing the $270 her sister Hana rakes in juggling two jobs. The two dream of playing the violin and guitar in Europe, of seeing the Eiffel tower. “I want to travel. I don’t want to return to Syria,” says Alif. “I still have big dreams, ambition." 

Hana does the math and gives her a quick reality check: “It would take us ten years to pay the smuggler fee.”