Ruqia Hassan: witness who paid with her life

Modern heroine: Ruqia Hassan’s family were worried that she would be killed for speaking out.

Are peace and justice brought about by nations? Or is real change more often due to a fearless individual such as the woman who wrote on Facebook about life in Raqqa under the rule of Daesh.

On 21 July 2015, 30-year-old Ruqia Hassan wrote a final Facebook message. ‘When Daesh arrest and kill me, it’s OK,’ she said. ‘I will have dignity, which is better than living in humiliation.’

She knew she was in danger. For months she had publicised information about life in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which jihadist group Daesh (often called ‘Islamic State’) had declared its capital.

Shortly afterwards, she was arrested. On New Year’s Day, after months without news, her brother was told she had been killed with five other women.

In the city Hassan described, human life was cheap. She spoke of brutal executions, including crucifixions, on the city’s main roundabout. ‘No one has shown us any compassion except the graveyards’, she wrote.

Fear was commonplace. As she heard an explosion from an airstrike, she wrote: ‘May God protect the civilians — and take the rest’. People in the market, she said, ‘crash into each other… because their eyes are glued to the skies’.

Daesh enforces draconian rules through whipping, random arrests and fines. Schools are closed, walls painted black, people forbidden to leave the city, and cigarettes and music banned. Women are forbidden from going out unless their bodies are completely covered.

Hassan grew up in Raqqa and had taken part in the first demonstrations against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in 2011. After Daesh captured Raqqa in 2014, she made contact with the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). In December, Daesh killed Naji Jerf, a member of RBSS who had made a documentary exposing human rights violations in Aleppo.

Similar eyewitnesses have historically highlighted the atrocities committed by murderous regimes. Shortly after the Holocaust, Primo Levi’s book If This is a Man provided a graphic account of the horrors at Auschwitz. And photojournalist Dith Pran helped to draw the world’s attention to the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, when 1.7 million people were killed.

Silent witness

Witnesses like Ruqia Hassan are the ones who truly defeat tyranny, say some. Their courageous example exposes the illegitimacy of their rulers and inspires others to resist. They focus attention on barbarity which people would often prefer to ignore, and provide lessons from which others can learn. They are worth more than bombs could ever be.

That’s pleasant, respond others, but too sentimental. Small acts of resistance can help, but it takes politicians, who can use armed forces and economic sanctions, to overthrow vile regimes like Daesh. The Holocaust, for example, could only be ended when allied troops liberated Europe. Our knowledge means little if it is not backed up with weapons.

You Decide

  1. Would you do what Ruqia Hassan did in similar circumstances?
  2. Who changes the world more: eyewitnesses or politicians?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to Ruqia Hassan’s family, paying tribute to her.
  2. Write a one-page factfile about someone who witnessed a particularly barbaric event in history (for example, Primo Levi). You will need to do some research into their background, what they saw, how they reported it, and what happened to them later.

Some People Say...

“Even the most powerless individual can change the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What can I learn from Ruqia Hassan?
She was a lot less lucky than most of us who live in free, democratic societies. Most of us do not know how we would react in a similar situation, but her behaviour shows the bravery which humans are capable of. She also shows the importance of thinking freely for yourself. One of her cousins said: ‘Ruqia was a special girl. She was sensitive and felt the pain of injustice. I teach philosophy and we sat for many nights discussing human nature and freedom.’
What might come next for the people of Raqqa?
They are in a very difficult situation at the moment — surrounded by warring factions including Daesh, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the Kurdish fighters. Daesh has declared Raqqa as its capital, and will be keen to hold on to the city.

Word Watch

Facebook
Hassan wrote under a pseudonym, ‘Nissan Ibrahim’.
Jihadist
Daesh is a group committed to enforcing its own interpretation of Islam, through the process of jihad (’holy war’). Hassan wrote that they thought ‘everyone is an infidel, Muslim or not’.
Capital
Raqqa has drawn fighters from around the world since this declaration was made. But thousands of civilians have been trapped in the city.
Women
Hassan wrote that she was ‘sick of being a second-class citizen’ after a Tunisian fighter objected to her ‘Islamic dress code’.
Covered
Another dissenter said women were told they had to wear black abayas and niqabs which covered their entire bodies — even including their hands.
Grew up
Hassan was from a Kurdish family. Few Kurds remain in Raqqa.
RBSS
Hassan made contact with the group, but did not work for them.
Cambodian genocide
The Khmer Rouge, led by Marxist leader Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. They forced millions of people from the cities to work on communal countryside farms. The policy led to deaths from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.