On life in Manbij: ‘We were lucky if the Islamic State even remembered our existence’

Out of food

Out of food, out of medicine and with no way to communicate to the outside world, a young man who asked to be called Mazen fled the Islamic State-controlled Manbij city with his family last month.

“Living conditions were unbearable, truly as bad as you can fathom,” Mazen, in his 20’s, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim. “We were lucky if the Islamic State even remembered our existence because frankly the citizens of Manbij weren’t even on their radar.”

Manbij, 30km south of the Turkish border, was how Islamic State recruits entered Syria. Control of the city provided IS an opening into Turkey as well as a waystation for the Islamic State between Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.

Since May 21, the international coalition has claimed 450 airstrikes, 95 percent of which were conducted by the United States, in and around Manbij to wrest it from the Islamic State. The airstrikes are supporting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their attempts to encircle and subsequently excise the Islamic State (IS).

 SDF-supported Manbij Military Council enters Manbij on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Sozdar Asmaill.

But they have destroyed the city’s infrastructure and municipal facilities, leading to shortages of fuel, food, water and electricity.

“We were waiting for the cover of darkness or for the fighting to pick up, anything that would’ve given us an avenue to escape,” Mazen said.

When the sun went down, we made a break for it.”

Q: Describe the situation inside Manbij before you decided to leave the city.

The situation was shit, and the way we were treated was even worse. When I was still living in Manbij, we’d be given little morsels of bread every so often, and maybe every person would get a quarter kilo of flour. And we were lucky if IS even remembered our existence because frankly the citizens of Manbij weren’t even on their radar.

In short, living conditions were unbearable, truly as bad as you can fathom. There was no medicine, no hospitals and no way to communicate with the outside world. These privileges were only afforded to the IS fighters. 

 Manbij residents leave IS control. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Q: How were you able to get out of Manbij, and how did the SDF receive you?

We were waiting for the cover of darkness or for the fighting to pick up, anything that would’ve given us an avenue to escape. When the sun went down, we made a break for it. We made it to the SDF frontlines and immediately asked for safe passage out of Manbij. The SDF took us aside to be questioned for security purposes, after which they permitted us to leave the area.

Q: Now that you’ve escaped IS territory, how does the humanitarian situation compare under the SDF?

At first, when we reached the SDF camps, they were distributing water, bread and other food on a fairly regular basis. Later on, the food deliveries came by only every week or so. But today, what do we get? Nothing but those little morsels of bread, the same thing that we got under IS rule.

People who have money can afford to buy some food, but for those who are less fortunate, they may very well die of hunger.

Housing has also become quite challenging. People who have family members living in the countryside typically go to live in these homes where there can be as many as five families all under one roof. Others just live under trees because the SDF won’t even give us tents.

Of course, just like life under IS, communication with the outside world is forbidden, with the SDF similarly claiming for it to be due to security concerns. People can only communicate in certain areas in secret.

Basic mobility has also gotten much stricter. It’s next to impossible to go to cities like Afrin or Kobani since the SDF made a new rule saying that you need a sponsor in order to enter these places.

However, compared to life under IS rule, living under the SDF is certainly preferred. Of course, it really varies on a place-by-place situation, and there are certainly other points of concern. Goods expensive because merchants will charge exorbitant prices and the SDF won’t regulate the markets. But overall, goods are available. There are health clinics, and there is medicine, which is more than one could say for life under IS.

Q: The SDF has liberated much of Manbij. Will you be returning to your home?

Let’s talk about returning home. Some families have been living under trees for two months now. Their homes are open and accessible, so why don’t they go back? Well, the SDF won’t allow them to go back, and they’ll say so without providing any justification.

Families that have sons fighting in the SDF are allowed to go home. Families that don’t have anyone fighting in the SDF but volunteer a son are allowed to go home.

Most people have joined the SDF either because they’re tired of running or because they want something more than what the current situation has afforded them.

Even the female fighters of the SDF try to befriend the women who have fled Manbij in an attempt to recruit more fighters. I know four women that have joined the SDF despite their families’ fervent protests, but I won’t mention their names here because I worry for their safety.