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Anatomy of a Caliphate: Life under Daesh in Syria – EXCLUSIVE

Anatomy of a Caliphate: Life under Daesh in Syria – EXCLUSIVE

While the Jihadis may have lost control of 98% of the territory they once had, the psychological torment for those who were forced to live under the group’s draconian rule persists. Sputnik sat down with two UK-based Syrian refugees who experienced the terrorists’ reign for the first part in a series of articles on ‘life under Daesh.’

Raed Moatassem and his family arrived in Britain on a characteristically cold and blustering afternoon in the autumn of 2015. Raed, a former school teacher, is a seasoned traveler, but this was the first overseas adventure he’d taken that was in pursuit of sanctuary, rather than leisure.

The Moatassems hail from Raqqa, the city that was invaded and brutalised by the theocratic cult of Daesh* and transformed into the capital of their feudal Islamic state in 2014.

“When news came that Daesh were on their way and would soon reach the outskirts of the city within days, the first to flee were the Alawites and Christians, including many of my friends,” recalls Raed.

READ MORE: Residents of Liberated Syrian City Near Aleppo Speak Out on Daesh Atrocities

“You know what they do to Christians for example right?” He asks rhetorically — “they make them pay heavy tax, they force them to leave or they kill them in the worst way,” he says, emphatically delivering the answer to his own question.

Daesh Arrives

Before the arrival of Daesh, Raqqa was fabled not only across Syria, but the Middle East more generally, as a cradle of Arab civilisation known for its museums and sprawling ancient castles. Yet, once the black flags were erected above its stone walls, that all changed. 

READ MORE: Over 4,500 Artifacts From Raqqa Museum Stolen by Terrorists – Syrian Official

​”In Raqqa, Muslims, Christians and Alawites had always lived together as neighbours and brothers. But one of the first things Daesh done was destroy churches and Shia mosques. This has created tensions between Sunni Muslims and those other religions, something which never existed before in Raqqa,” Raed says, taking intermittent sips of black coffee and furrowing his brow, clearly still enraged by what Daesh done to his home town.

Reports say that Daesh carried out a systematic campaign of exterminating religious minorities, including Alawites, the religious sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. In July 2016 alone, reports say that roughly 600 Alawites were killed by the terrorist group. 

Raqqa played a decisive role as both a symbol and strategic hub in Daesh’s terrorist activities in and across the Middle East from 2014 to 2017. Not only was it their de-facto capital until the group was pushed out of the city by the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2017, but it also functioned as a planning centre for overseas terrorist atrocities, including those that occurred across Europe between 2014-2017.

The city also doubled-up as a


, where those suspected of harbouring loyalty to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, or any entity other than Daesh, were publicly beheaded, stoned to death, hung or crucified.

Yet, Raed’s wife, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Sputnik that the reality was much worse than the headlines suggest.

“I remember them celebrating in the streets after they’d driven Nusra and other groups from the city. They put their black flags everywhere and were firing machine guns at the sky for days. They began to kill as soon as they arrived,” she says.

READ MORE: Raqqa Resident: Daesh ‘Killed My Father in the City Center and Made Video’

She then goes on to recall a particularly horrific incident that she witnessed soon after the convoys of Jihadis set up camp in the city.

“I remember just the day after they arrived, three of them, big men, stopped a young boy on the street and told him to pray, but he did not do it right. One of the Daesh smashed the handle of his gun into the boy’s face and told him to do it again, but again the boy did not know how, so they beat him more. People tried to help. An old man shouted, ‘leave him son, he’s just a boy!’ but they continued until the boy stopped screaming. Eventually, they accused him of being an Alawite and took him away,” Raed’s wife recalls.

Khiri was just a baby when ISIS took him. They repeatedly broke the bones in his legs and mangled his left ear. We should be doing everything we can to help these children because we’re all to blame for the fact that they weren’t protected. #Yazidigenocide

— Sally Becker (@sallybecker121) 13 January 2019

A Society Transformed 

After Daesh took control of Raqqa, strict codes of social conduct were enacted under an ultra-puritanical interpretation of Sharia law: alcohol was prohibited, smoking was banned along with music, movies, poetry, books and dancing.

“They were often watching out to see if people done any of these things. It was like a big eye, watching you all the time,” says Raed’s wife.

The couple, who are in their mid-30s, recount how Daesh enforced a kind of collective amnesia on the entirety of Raqqa’s population. Discussion of life before the Caliphate was outlawed, as if living memory itself became a sin.

READ MORE: ‘Life Turned Into Torture’: Women Who Escaped From Mosul Recall Daesh Atrocities

“People — old and young, men and woman — were beaten, taken to prison, tortured and often killed for discussing the past in public. If you spoke about before that meant that you weren’t happy in the Islamic state, that you were questioning it, which was an insult to the Sheikh Baghdadi,” Raed says with a pang of bewilderment in his voice.

Raed had worked as an English teacher at a local high school for years, but was given a new assignment once Daesh had taken over the local school board: Quran and propagandised history.

“Alongside teaching Quran, I was given new teaching material. But it was not real history at all, it was totally fabricated. It was all based on the vision of Baghdadi. I had to tell the children, almost every day, about how the enemies of Islam have always been the foreign non-Muslim countries fighting in Syria, like America and Russia, and that we will destroy them and make them our slaves. If I refused to say these things, they would kill me. I had no choice,” he told Sputnik.

“They left bodies hanging from lamp posts and laying in the streets, I guess to warn people like me not to question them, and to do as they told us, or we will end this way too.”


Like many others, Raed, his wife and daughter decided to flee when the social makeup of the city had been smeared beyond recognition, and as the coalition air campaign, especially by the US and France, increased.

“Air strikes were destroying entire blocs of buildings, killing hundreds of people at a time. What was strange was that this was not even the worst part for me. What was so bad was how my city, my home, had changed so much. I did not recognise it any more. Some of my students became brainwashed and wanted to fight for the Caliphate. People were terrorised, hungry exhausted and many were killing themselves,” Raed solemnly explained to Sputnik.

READ MORE: Yazidis on Daesh Atrocities: ‘Europe, US Did Nothing to Help Us’

​The final straw came for him when a woman known by his wife was stoned to death for the crime of talking to a man in the street. This, Daesh argued, was tantamount to adultery.

“We waited for 6 weeks after I’d paid to be smuggled through a checkpoint to the northwest of Raqqa. After that we could make it to Turkey, where I had a relative who helped us get to Europe,” says Raed.

“We were lucky, but my mind is always with those who were not.”

*Daesh (ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State) is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.

The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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The influencers: How Ottawa uses popular online hosts to get its messages out

The influencers: How Ottawa uses popular online hosts to get its messages out

Florence Lavoie is 22 years old, works at home producing and distributing French language videos on YouTube. It’s lightweight, slice-of-life stuff, mostly: tips on makeup, dating, shopping and diet (one September post ranking lip balm flavours picked up 34,000 views).

She’s been posting videos online since age 10. Her bubbly, upbeat on-camera persona has earned her north of 85,000 subscribers — enough to make YouTube her full-time job, enough to bring her to the attention of the Government of Canada, which hired her in March to produce and distribute a short online video warning young people about the dangers of opioid abuse.

“There is an agency from Montreal that contacted me and talked to me about the project,” Lavoie said. “So already I was interested in sending a nice message to the young people that follow me, because there’s a crisis and people can get involved and touched by that.”

A ‘new era of celebrities’

The Public Health Agency of Canada paid Lavoie and four other social media influencers $17,700 in total to raise awareness about the dangers of opioid misuse. Lavoie’s video earned her $6,600.

“It’s like the new era of celebrities, if I can say (that). People look up to us and they’ll take our advice,” she said.

Nice work if you can get it — and you can get it if you try. The Trudeau government has been actively courting people with significant online audiences to help it communicate its messages to the Canadians who tend to tune out traditional government communications strategies.

Florence Lavoie holds forth on her YouTube channel. “Younger people don’t really watch television anymore,” she says. (CBC News)

Lavoie said the logic behind the recruitment of social media ‘influencers’ like her is obvious to anyone under 30: young people live online — and they don’t like being preached to by older ‘experts’.

“Younger people don’t really watch television anymore and don’t really connect to ads like that because they don’t really speak to them,” she said.

Her opioid video took the form of a conversation between herself and her 15-year-old brother. In it, they talk about the mortal risks involved in taking unknown drugs and strategies for coping with an overdose. No lectures, no screeds against recreational drug use — just a little brother getting some potentially life-saving advice from his older, cooler sister.

“We spoke about the crisis in a way that was natural,” Lavoie said, adding that when she took the federal government’s contract, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to be telling young Canadians “oh, don’t take drugs, you’re just going to die and go (to) prison.

“I didn’t want to share a message like that because even though drugs are not good, well, some people are going to be taking some and you just want to tell them what are the risks.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada hasn’t limited its influencer outreach to the youth market. The agency spent $4,000 on sponsored content published on the website UrbanMoms, which targets Canadian parents with both heavy and light takes on the problems of raising a family (recent posts included pieces on nipple care and allergy-proofing your house). The site reaches just under 100,000 Canadians every month.

Natalie Milne, VP of Maple Media. “If you have a very specific target audience that you’re trying to reach, influencers are an exceptional way of reaching that audience,” she says. (CBC News)

“It was a good fit because UrbanMoms already has the established audience in that demographic that the government was looking to reach. So they were trying to get the message out to parents who have kids who are about to embark on their teenage years,” said Natalie Milne, vice president of the Toronto-based digital publishing company Maple Media, which manages the UrbanMoms site.

“If you have a very specific target audience that you’re trying to reach, influencers are an exceptional way of reaching that audience and they deliver the message in a really authentic and organic voice.”

All sponsored content on Maple Media’s sites is identified as such, said Leslie McCormick, the company’s campaign manager.

“We put a statement at the bottom of the content that says that this piece is sponsored by Health Canada, in this instance, but the opinions are our own. And we always include links out to the client’s site,” McCormick said.

‘Established credibility’

Two other federal government departments — Global Affairs and Public Safety — report having hired online influencers to get the word out.

Public Safety has spent $181,028.20 on social media influencers since 2015 as a part of its public relations campaigns promoting things like protecting sensitive personal information online.

The government is still using ‘traditional’ TV talking heads as a spokespeople — but now, those spokespeople are also helping to expand its social media footprint.

Public Safety paid $133,000 to HGTV home reno expert Bryan Baeumler for his help in promoting the government’s Flood Ready campaign, a program to encourage Canadians to flood-proof their homes.

“Social media influencers have access to large audiences, where they have established credibility and authority on issues that matter to Canadians,” said Tim Warmington, spokesperson for Public Safety Canada.

“By partnering with influencers and leveraging their reach, we can seek to engage with Canadians while making efficient use of public funds.”

Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa says the federal government’s use of online ‘influencers’ in its communications strategy comes with some risks. (CBC News)

Not everyone is convinced that influencers always offer the best means of getting government messages to hard-to-reach audiences. Elizabeth Dubois, a University of Ottawa academic who studies the political use of digital media, said there’s a risk of fracturing the audience for essential government information.

“By selecting particular influencers, we’re essentially selecting parts of the Canadian public,” she said. “Which means that the parts of the Canadian public who connect with those influencers get the information, and everyone else doesn’t.”

The ‘bot problem

And Dubois warns that any government use of online influencers has to make certain, in an age of weaponized online disinformation, that the people being hired truly are who they say they are — and are being read by actual people.

“If we’re selecting influencers based on their reach but their reach has actually been manipulated by a bunch of ‘bot accounts that have been created to inflate how important they seem, we end up accidentally investing resources in something that’s not actually going to pay out because it’s not real people following those influencers in the first place.”

Others say the trend toward delivering government messaging through online influencers is only going to accelerate — because it works.

“I think it’s about time,” said John White, a branding expert with Social Marketing Solutions in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Government always kind of lags behind. I think that government is slowly catching on and seeing the success that the business world is having with influencer marketing, seeing how they can implement it into their messaging to move their audience.”

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Beauty Banks takes skincare donations and redistributes out to those in need

Beauty Banks takes skincare donations and redistributes out to those in need

How was your Christmas? Did you get everything you wanted? Or did you get a load of stuff that you unwrapped, smiled politely, gave effusive thanks for and put to one side, thinking that it’ll come in useful at a tombola or to re-gift next year? You’re not alone. According to research from Action for Children, a third of us will have received a Christmas present that we don’t want.

And little wonder really. At a time when the queen of the clear out Marie Kondo has her own show on Netflix, when the newest middle class trend is not acquiring stuff, but getting rid of it, it’s no surprise that despite the best intentions of kind relatives, Christmas has left us feeling stuffocated, and overwhelmed with things we don’t really want or need.

Well I come bearing glad tidings. Whatever it is, there’s no need to stick it in the present drawer and hope it proves useful at some point. Instead, there are a number of charities that are desperate for the stuff that you want to get rid of. 

Beauty Banks founders Sali Hughes (left) and Jo Jones (right) set up the non-profit organisation in February 2018 to help those who cannot afford essentials such as deodorant

Beauty Banks take various skincare donations from numerous brands, including Dove, Nivea, Simple, Tresemme and Johnsons

Yes, of course, there are probably local charities and charity shops that will be happy to take things off your hands, but there are also a number of charities dedicated to redistributing unwanted gifts.

Let’s start with smellies. After all, they’re usually a safe bet, hence the abundance of coffrets, palettes and beauty box sets that flood into the shops pre-Christmas. 

But what if you’re the recipient of some body lotion in a fragrance you haven’t worn for decades, a set of soaps that you just know aren’t right for your skin type, or even some makeup in shades that you know you’ll never wear? That’s where Beauty Banks comes in.

Established in February 2018, Beauty Banks is a non-profit organisation that works like food banks work, but rather than taking donations of food, takes donations of brand new, unused essential personal care and beauty items instead. They then re-package and distribute parcels to charity partners who ensure donations get to those who need them.

The Beauty Banks team will repackage and redistribute the donations and sent out to charities, homeless shelters, NHS trusts and other places

The concept was the brainchild of two women in the beauty industry, PR Jo Jones, and journalist Sali Hughes. 

The pair had become aware that teacher friends of theirs were buying toiletries for their pupils, who couldn’t afford basic essentials such as deodorant, or sanitary protection.

‘You hear these stories and you think “Surely that’s not happening in the UK?”’ says Jo. 

‘Women rationing their babies nappies, girls skipping school as they can’t afford sanitary towels. That shouldn’t be happening. But it is, because if people have so little money that they have to choose between buying food and buying soap, they buy food’ she continued.

Jo admits that they had no idea of the scale of the project when they first came up with the idea.

Sali and Jo came up with the idea when they discovered their friends, who are teachers, buy deodorant and sanitary products for some students 

‘We didn’t know that we’d get thousands of packages every month,’ she says. 

‘We’ve had to learn and adapt. We’ve got friends and family helping out, driving boxes to where they’re needed, and helping to sort and package up products.’

You feel like you’re failing your children, failing yourself. You feel useless and worthless when you don’t smell fresh and look fresh. And when you can’t even afford basic hygiene, you wouldn’t dream of treating yourself with something extravagant. 

These products are then distributed via food banks, schools, community centres, NHS trusts, and homeless shelters.

Alice Baird works for a charity called Superkidz, who receive products from Beauty Banks.

‘We work with deprived communities and have a lot of families choosing between heating and eating,’ she says.

‘Those very basic needs have to be met — yes, they need toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo and conditioner but they just don’t have the money. Can you imagine being a child in school who hasn’t washed? Or wanting to go to a job interview, but not having clean hair? Beauty Banks allows them to exist in society without being ostracised for the way they look or smell.’

The duo have recruited the help of family and friends to help drive the deliveries and package the products too 

She’s in no doubt about the impact that the donations have on the lives of the people she works with.

Alice continued: ‘People don’t like to talk about needing hygiene products. 

‘But I know who I can give products to and how to do it in a way that won’t embarrass them. You see the relief on their faces when you tell them they can have what they need. 

‘One woman I know burst into tears the first time I gave her some products. She’s the carer for ten of her grandchildren, five of them are girls and she can’t afford the sanitary products that they need. This sort of help is invaluable.’

Sali and Jo have been flooded with praise for their initiative as one woman ‘burst into tears’ when she received her first package from Beauty Banks

Dawn, 38, lives in Greenwich, south London, and for the last five months has been receiving products from Beauty Banks, via Superkidz. She explains what it’s like not to be able to afford basic toiletries.

Dawn said: ‘Some weeks I just wouldn’t have the money to buy things like soap. And that feels really degrading. You feel like you’re failing your children, failing yourself. You feel useless and worthless when you don’t smell fresh and look fresh. And when you can’t even afford basic hygiene, you wouldn’t dream of treating yourself with something extravagant. 

What to do with your unwanted Christmas presents 

Unwanted clothes

Alicas is a social venture that collects unworn clothes with the labels still on from individuals and retailers to create beautifully packaged boxes of outfits that are delivered to women who have escaped abusive relationships, with a handwritten note of support and solidarity.

The idea was conceived after the founder, Rachael Bews, herself escaped an abusive relationship and found that women who ran away with nothing but the clothes on their backs were often given bin bags of unwashed, out of date clothes. 

Although well-intentioned, Rachael says that this sort of thing ‘didn’t convey a message of their own worth.’ 

In her first job Rachael remembered meeting a woman called Ali who after leaving her abusive partner maintained that the two things that kept her going were a good coat and a good pair of shoes. 

She said: ‘They let her take her kids to school and feel like she belonged in the playground, they meant she could go for job interviews.’ 

Donate to Alicas at Alicas, F10 Internal, Edinburgh Palette, 525 Ferry Road, Edinburgh, EH5 2FF,

Unwanted video games and consoles

OK, it’s unlikely that you — or your kids — are going to donate the latest hi-tech, exceedingly sought-after PlayStation 4 Pro to charity, but the likelihood is that anyone who gets a new console or game for Christmas will have an old console or game hanging around the house. 

Rather than leaving them to gather dust, Get Well Gamers will take them off your hands. 

They’re a charity that give them to hospitals across the United Kingdom, providing much-needed entertainment (and proven and effective pain management) for young people during long hospital stays. 

To donate, simply go to their website, fill in your details and the information about what you have to donate, and they’ll try to find a volunteer nearby to do a pick-up.

Unwanted sports kit and equipment

Grown out of old kit, changed allegiance, or found a new whizzy exercise gadget that replaces last year’s? Sports Traider has a chain of charity sports shops that aim to ensure that all children and young people can take part in sports. 

The charity also accepts donations of unwanted sportswear and equipment, which can be given to disadvantaged children and young people to help them participate in their chosen sport. 

Go to the contact section of their website to let them know you want to take part in their #kitamnesty, and they’ll take it from there. 

‘Beauty Banks have helped out with the basics, which has meant I’ve been able to give my girls sanitary protection, and keep us all clean, but what’s really lovely is that every now and then you get something that’s a real treat — some makeup, or an expensive shower gel. That’s amazing, it really picks you up.’

Frances Beecher is CEO of Llamau, Wales’ leading homeless charity for young people and women. 

Llamau recently worked with Beauty Banks, and volunteer beauticians and hairdressers to give makeovers to 25 homeless people who had upcoming interviews for training or jobs.

‘It sounds frivolous, but the difference it made to people’s self-esteem and their ability to connect with prospective employers was phenomenal,’ she says. 

‘Every single one of those 25 people is now in training, employment, or on an apprenticeship scheme.’

Frances realises it can be hard for people who take basic hygiene for granted to imagine what it’s like not to have access to this.

Frances added: ‘You know how grotty you feel when you wake up and haven’t washed your face or brushed your teeth? You don’t feel human. Imagine that ten times over, and how that would make you feel as a person. 

‘Toiletries shouldn’t be luxuries. It should be a fundamental human right to have the sense of dignity that being clean gives you.’

Beauty Banks also distributes cosmetics and, as Frances points out ‘there’s not a woman in the land who doesn’t feel more able to face the world with some foundation or lipstick on. Why shouldn’t the most vulnerable in society have what we don’t even think twice about?’

Courtney is 17 and lives in a housing project in Cardiff. She is currently working towards an apprenticeship in hairdressing and has received shampoo, conditioner, soap and makeup from Beauty Banks.

Courtney said: ‘These were things I couldn’t afford to buy. 

‘Before I used to just have to wash with water. People would keep their distance from me, probably because I did smell.

‘Now, I feel like people speak to me more, like I have friends. It’s made a real difference to how I feel about myself. I don’t feel like a tramp any more, I feel like me again.’

Frances points out that while the products themselves are crucial, what they represent is also important.

She said: ‘We live in a society where if you are poor or destitute, you are blamed for it. 

‘So to have people, such as those who run, and give to Beauty Banks, giving their time and attention to making sure you have the things that you need to function as a human, because they think you are important, is invaluable. I wish I had the words to describe the look in someone’s eye, the way they light up, when you give them something as simple as shampoo or conditioner. It makes my day.’

Want to make someone’s day? Take your unwanted, unopened Christmas smellies — as well as any other toiletries, sanitary products, baby products, minis from hotels and planes — and send them to Beauty Banks, c/o The Communications Store, 2 Kensington Square, London W8 5EP (after 4 Jan please as the office is closed until then.) 

If you haven’t got anything to donate, but want to contribute, you can shop the Beauty Banks wishlist at

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