Zaina Erhaim writes: At first we didn’t recognise our friend. He had lost more than 10kg and had trouble standing up. His face was the colour of a ripe lemon, his clothes as filthy as if he had just climbed out of a tomb. Could that really be Mohammad?
A week ago the 30-year-old pharmacist had been abducted in an Aleppo suburb by Islamic State. Most of his friends had assumed that Mohammad (not his real name) was gone for ever. “No one goes into Isis prisons and comes out alive, especially those who are accused of being secularists,” his friend Rand said. Mohammad is a devout Muslim, but for Isis a secularist is simply anyone who dares stand up to them.
The irony is that while Mohammad is a dangerous secularist in the eyes of Isis, the west sees him as a dangerous Islamist. After Isis occupied some Aleppo suburbs, Mohammad and many other medics decided not to leave their home town but to continue helping local people – despite the risk and personal sacrifice involved. Yet they now find themselves treated as terrorists wherever they go, simply because they have come from Isis-occupied territories. Last month Mohammad and a group of doctors were not allowed into Turkey, although their passports are valid. A border guard told them to “go back to your Islamic State”.
In a way Mohammad is lucky. Not only did he manage to run away from an Isis prison, he also doesn’t have to travel abroad, where the entire world would treat him as a terrorist until proved innocent. “You are all terrorists to the Americans,” the manager of a bank in the Turkish city of Gaziantep told me yesterday, explaining the new ban of US dollar transfers to Syrian-held accounts.
At least she bothered to explain. Last summer I received a call from the American consulate in Istanbul telling me that my two-year visa was cancelled. Apparently they were not authorised to give me the reasons why. I travelled to the US twice last year with an organisation that is registered there, and I have an international press card, a valid visa to the UK and a track record of working for the BBC: all that didn’t save me from the suspicion of being a potential terrorist. A friend who works in the US told me that I probably wouldn’t have faced these problems living in Turkey. “But you live inside Syria, so you are most probably a criminal in one way or another.” [Continue reading…]