135 reflections of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’

When I started this book, a few questions came to mind. Most part of it was questioning the status of a “diary” especially since the 1900s’ widespread and popular war diary by young Anne Frank entered the world.

Firstly, “ by Samer* ”. I question its credibility a little. I don’t want to assume that this story or diary is any less real (because it is almost as good as anonymous), but it is also grave to note that because Daesh still exists and is very much “alive” – this is life and death when the identity of this writer/diarist is exposed. It indicates to me that it is so real, and a heavy diary that is loaded with potential consequences. How we read it will open more eyes and hearts into this world of the ‘Islamic State’ of the 21st century.

Secondly, Mike Thomson, BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent, wrote a preface to the diary. How they managed to gain access to an insider on the ground. Back to the first question, because it is highly sensitive and dangerous information where NO JOURNALIST or MEDIA has access to this very place… How do we get hold information and from whom? Why is it published in the form of a diary not a news report or documentary style? Especially because when Thomson was hunting for news, he chooses the medium of a diary. News are typically presented as “objectively” and “neutrally” as it can. What does the status of a diary have here? It’s truth? Credibility? Emotions and sensibilities? Private thoughts? Vulnerability?

Thirdly, THERE ARE NO DATES. A diary with no dates. Except at the start, 6th March 2013, and at the end, late May 2016. I wonder why… Wondering but also thinking about how the in between of a few years actually felt much shorter. Marked only by the asterisks, feels like the diarist went through these events quickly. Things were happening and unfolding in Raqqa quickly. Deaths were happening every moment. Oppressors were taking over bit by bit. Raqqa was losing control of itself asterisk after asterisk. No dates, just a series of events. A crucial sequence that eventually pushed the diarist out of his home. That is how I found myself at the start of the diary without Daesh yet, and the end without Daesh’s presence in the diarist’s life.

Lastly, during the month I took to read this, I watched City of Ghosts (documentary about RBSS). I realized that ok, within Raqqa there must be several media activist groups operating in secret. In wanting to bring news out to the world about the reality of Raqqa right? We have Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and here is Al-Sharqiya 24. So… Have their efforts finally spurred the global community into action after reading such truths/horrific news/facts about Raqqa and what Daesh had been up to?

The fact that the world is standing idly by, just watching what is happening, does not surprise anyone here anymore. Everyone I meet, whether it is a child or an old person who has witnessed many horrors, pins their hopes on our own revolutionaries. The outside world has not answered our calls.

– Samer

The “liberation” of Raqqa from Daesh happened on the 17 October 2017. It doesn’t change the fact that lives have been erased, the town is still in rubble. But may this be the start of something?

(Another question…. WHAT even, there is a cartoon on snippets of the diary… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRubQYr6O6Q)

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134 broken whole

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my inner being is dissected when i disagree with Him.
my imperfections show and i know that i am wrong.
i gravitate towards the dark rebellion that is brewing
in my spirit and heart. it is difficult to arrest it to say
sorry i am wrong, i will do my best to refrain from
the bad thoughts, the wrong words, the grim aura i
bring to myself. because i have come to learn and
realise that i call it upon myself with the excruciating
yet cruel controllable mind of mine. i am that broken.
broken into many pieces, fragmented and the pieces
unravel the untold lies, the bare shame that consumes
my inner being. through and through i am tangled in
weeds and vines, vines and weeds, hidden beneath is
the raw flesh of my vulnerabilities that are fighting to
be freed. i have come to learn and realise that i can
call upon myself the goodness and joy that can cleanse
these impurities from my inner system. i can be whole

only if i choose to.

133 reflections from The Morning They Came for Us

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i read this book during my commute. whenever i read something horrific, intestines being pulled on, a man sobbing like a baby over the death of his best friend, a 4-year-old who accompanies his father who works in a graveyard… i look up from the book, to my surroundings and i cannot fathom how i’m on a bus with no shelling going on, the sound of gunfires are unfamiliar and totally foreign – unimaginable. there is peace. i live in peace.

The war continues. States the epilogue. It continues, it hasn’t stopped and the future is so uncertain. Di Giovanni consciously updates us about the political situation and the fates of the people she meets and colleagues. It is this common use of the “foreshadowing” that intrigues me. It reminds me of Segher’s semi-autobiography/novella the Outing of the Dead Schoolgirls. We tend to need to know where these figures and characters are now. If they are dead, we should know that as we read them as alive at one point – but presently they are not. A commemoration. For remembrance. In a memoir.

Internally displaced, painfully living in the dark because it is too dangerous to move about outside, snipers are constantly on watch. Yet they stay. It is home, where can they go? They leave the country, but return after a few years. Because it is home. It is just their home.

Lastly, time. I’ve learned a new way to conceptualise time during war. It is counted by the number of cigarettes lighted (110). It is always a space of waiting… for your target, for it to all end. A space of uncertainty of what the next day would bring or even the next hour or minute. Even “minutes are endless. It seems you will never move forward to the next day” (121), everything is stretched out. It seems like this is taking forever, but what is everyone waiting for exactly?

My question remains. How does Di Giovanni (given her 20 years of experience in reporting war) and many other war correspondents continue their work? How do you just deal with trauma, resume normal citizen life and family then return to war torn countries to work?

#justthoughts

132 the grimy pot that will shine

and we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit
– 2 corinthians 3:18

one of the things i (nic) annotated on this particular passage a few months ago was: we should reflect God’s glory on our face!

true enough the Lord actually granted me (nic) a vision of that yesterday.

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it was a hand holding a silver pot that was grimy, dirty and rusty. but the other hand was holding a cloth, which started rubbing the pot as hard as it could, polishing it, such that a part of the pot was spotless and shiny! it was so shiny that it reflected the face of the polisher – it reflected Jesus. God’s glory was reflected on the pot!

although we are the pot, covered in our sin, our Lord has died for us to cleanse us from all our imperfections. through His work of polishing, He has purified us and made us clean to reflect His image; to be image bearers of God. when we are shiny again, we are able to shine bright for Him that is attractive to the world.

we looked at exodus 34:29-35 (during our devo). moses went to the mountain to speak with God. he returned with a radiant face from the glory of God that was soooo bright. but everyone was scared of him that he had to wear a veil to approach them. why were they afraid of the radiance?

it could be possible that the israelites still had sin in their lives therefore they were fearful. moses had just been met with the Holy One, and sin and holiness can never be near one another. at the same time, moses KNEW the Lord. he had just MET him. this personal relationship allowed him to radiate the Lord’s glory.

similarly, rather than turning away from the glory of God, we should go towards His light. although we were once in darkness, He has called us out of it into His wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). it is easy to settle as a mere grimy pot when we are unaware of our destiny. it is easy to undervalue ourselves when we have yet to grasp who we really are in Christ – our identity, our value, and our calling in His kingdom that stands forever.

today, let not our hearts be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness and in our unbelief, turn away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12-13). instead, let light shine through the darkness of our hearts and His truth be revealed in the light of His glory. that all melancholy turn into joy, and all depression turn into praise. we lift our faces heavenward, and as we behold the glory of the Son, we begin to reflect His radiance and be transformed in His image.

 

let there be light.

for God, who said, “let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ
– 2 corinthians 4:6

written by ernest & nicole

131 dear grandpapa (23 january 1938 – 21 february 2017)

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dear grandpapa,

you have walked through the lifegate,
you have completed your marathon.

our relationship was brief, 20 odd years, and fruitful
you have been sowing feeding guarding living.

the brevity of your words grew almost minimal,
your actions spoke louder to me since you were of few words

your fox fur tail boney legs will always remind me
the cuckoos you used to sing to, the fishes that you fed.

it used to be that you reached home at about five,
parked your bicycle, preparing shaved antler drink

that was truthfully the weirdest thing fed by you, then
you’d sit in your elastic mini chair till the Ch8 6点半 news.

we have all heard, gong gong, what you have taught
your sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers:

“family first. look out for one another.
patience and perseverance and work hard.”

it was only after listened and looked through
archives of you where i pieced together

the simple believing man that you were,
you studied the word and did your devotions.

a discerning god-fearing man. faithfully you
worshipped him obeyed him and waited on him.

your journey on earth with sin and sicknesses will be
no more because you have ascended peacefully

the moment you closed your eyes for good.

after my grandfather’s passing, i thought i should reflect aloud. those who came to pay their respects to him would know that the wake wasn’t a typical depressing set up. it was literally a party – to put it respectfully, a celebration of my gong gong’s life. the second night was madness. nothing short of a Gatsby party, well except for dancing but definitely a feast with some of his favourite 70s Christian rock blasting in the background, insufficient seats, joyous laughter and reunion for folks who haven’t seen my grandparents in years.

this went on for the next two nights.

the day time was my favourite. for 5 days, i saw my family. we were all about the smiles. it was the last few days to be physically close to my grandfather, and it was an amalgamation of chinese new year and christmas x5. i apologise for the hysterical cries of laughters, but i believe no one stopped us (despite the glares) because it was what gong gong would have praised God for – family. 11 grandchildren he has, i am thankful for being a part of his legacy.

God loved him and blessed him with strength to hang around with us year after year. but he had to leave for his rightful home on the day he slept on. it was difficult to see his physical body embalmed, but the Lord kept reminding me that my gong gong had already reached his home in the kingdom. physicality is temporal. his soul lives on now in the eternal.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

– 2 Corinthians 5:1

130 i’m harmless

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i’m scratching the walls,

i’m scratching the harmless table,

i’m clawing at the windows – or at least i try it is at least half a metre taller than i am,

i’m clawing at the bare basin,

i’m clawing at the corners of the floor,

i’m clawing at the slab of plastic bed,

i’m clawing on my scabs.

i’m digging deep on my scars.

i’m digging until i see the bones.

i’m digging till i see a space for my body.


just wrote a random response piece to the recent visit to the Reading Gaol/Prison where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned many years ago. it continued its run until 2013. there were 3 cells with furnitures made of plastic for prisoners who were at risk of self-harm.

also, after taking modules about deviance (from my lit class) and criminology, i’ve been exposed to what it is on criminal acts and the consequences suffered in prison. drug abuse or drug embracing for the purpose of art, thanks Burroughs and Ginsberg and many more. and really thinking through about how beneficial prison is for the criminal. so many factors. is it really the most efficient way of rehabilitating the individual back into society?

below is my favourite piece that i read at the prison, can’t believe it isn’t real. but beautifully written. there are more letters of separation here: https://www.artangel.org.uk/inside/read-letters-of-separation/

“I have wanted very much to die, and if it weren’t for you, I might have taken matters into my own hands. But we are tethered together for now. And for now, you are keeping me alive. My body is your prison and your shelter from the world. Without it, you will not survive. Without you, I would have no reason to.”

– ‘Letter to my Unborn Daughter’,  Tahmima Anam

 

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the remains on the walls

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129 let’s pull ourselves together

part i: soooooo the Lord impressed words upon my heart over the weekend of 11 to 13 september. and it went something like this: not a push but a pull.

then the following string of words appeared (with about two hours worth of editing on the spot with Pei En):

It is not a push.
It’s not between two men, no
It’s not between you and me,
And how we struggle, no

Nor is it a pull like in a tug of war.
It’s not about your way or my way – about who wins.
It is not to separate, it is not to divide
What good are we, each, as a single thread?

It is not even a push between God and me, no
It’s not a push away,
Don’t push the father away,
No don’t push His love away.

It is not push, but a pull.
Yes, it is a pull, it’s a pull!

It is a pull towards God,
a pull towards Jesus,
it’s a pull from Him.

It is a pull to follow Him, to be with Him.
It’s a pull to be closer to Him.

People –
God has intended for us to be woven as a cord,
A cord of three strands,
that is bound together,
tightened together,
made strong together.
A cord created when we respond as one
to the pull of God.

With Christ holding us together,
we will not be brittle,
we will not be fragile,
we will not be loose,
we will not be weak.

We will withstand the stretch,
we will overcome.
He will use us to pull the lost towards Him,
To pull nations towards him,
To fulfil His mission.

So Church, remember, it is a PULL, not a push,
let’s pull ourselves closer together,
let’s tighten the knot of Christ,
and secure ourselves to Christ – our anchor.

Never forget, that a threefold cord is not easily broken.


part ii: i really want to share this as well, Lee Han and Serene came up to me a week later to hand me this picture. a vision that Lee Han received from the Lord as the spoken word was done and she got Serene to illustrate this:

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the veins are the Church, coming together as one to reach out and pulling the lost back Home

upon receiving it i had no words just awe at His picture. He is so alive in us!!!

the Lord is moving in the congregation and when the body of Christ is united as one, the Lord uses us to reach out to the lost. i really love how the shadow of the veins forms a hand. signifying the hand of the Lord, which is basically us! we are His hands touching lives, helping people, moving nations – but all this is only  possible through Christ. the closer we are to Him the more we become like Christ.

it has been two weeks and it is still fresh on my mind and spirit to witness how the Lord moves in us. i remember when He spoke those words to me, it was a prayer to be declared to His people. the blessings came from the Lord directly, He ministered to me. God does the changing of the hearts and opening of ears. He is changing each and every one of us. it is solely for His glory, all this for His glory.

everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.

Isaiah 43:7

128 maus – survivors of the right lane

maus isn’t just a simple read but a comic that is heavily coated with nostalgia and lost love. art spiegelman chooses to begin to trace his father’s history even before the war began with the reader. throughout the text it goes back and forth to art’s writing process and interview with his father, exploring the dynamics of vladek’s relationship with the people around him. and in maus ii it becomes more self-reflexive, deciding on whether or not to include certain parts and how he should continue his story. that’s when i feel that the darkness of his father’s story begins to cloud his vision and the cynicism creeps up to him.

one thing is for sure, what i read was a survivor’s tale alright. vladek’s character and who he is presently, is shaped not only from his upbringing but the circumstances he lived through. from emptied stomachs to multiple panic attacks shapes a grumpy and angsty old man. but the tender man is found deep within his heart when he speaks of anja – i suppose that is where the introduction that art establish is so important. how they met and fell in love so deeply.

what i find interesting is that the nazis would always split Jews into two lines. and the left would be the line to death and the right would be the line for a second chance. but never guaranteeing a fate of hope. you may be in the right lane this time round, but the next time you may end up in the left. when vladek’s father went from the right lane to the left because he was worried for his daughter – that left a scratch on my heart. would you rather live knowing where your loved on went; or go along and leave the world together, in one another’s arms?

“look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. what’s the point? people haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust” – maus ii, 45

the weight of these two books is pretty hard to bear. vladek and anja met with freedom again… but their toil with the nazis will remain as scars. the extent that vladek went just so they could meet one another in the concentration camp was hair-standing, he would risk anything to see his lover again. wow. it ended as the way they started, reunited. it warmed my heart that they managed to find one another again despite the amount of chaos they went through.

127 literature = poverty of human condition

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post-panel reflections – beyond the slp (10 july 2016)

there were discussions of loss and pain through the various mediums of literary art. creative non-fiction, poetry and fiction.

literature is understanding the depth of what happened. to understand the circumstances and growing from them.

there are experiences where we do not immediately comprehend, and so we need to learn how to accept and be comfortable with uncertainty and the unfamiliar.

we may not be able to grasp fully the extent of an emotion, but we should be aware of our perceptions and be open towards such experiences.

the emotional intensity ~ core memory are some what related. the intensity continues to exist in our subconscious. some may not embrace and choose to avoid it – which becomes a suppressed emotion and memory.

and we try to recreate the experiences of pain and loss in our minds because it has impacted us a great deal.

pain and loss is a shared human experience. that is beautiful.

being human is about being broken. and in this brokenness there is beauty. we need beauty to sustain us. in that, there is redemption and hope amidst the dark – even if we don’t see it in this lifetime.

[compilation of the words of leonora liow, danielle lim and eric valles]

126 every night

remember i am only human, but
have you heard the names you have given me?

i weigh 135 kilos, and i actually work out.
i am that strong.

but i also know what it means to be firm,
and soft. and comfortable

in my own skin, i love it, and i know
you love it too. we understand each other.

i like to listen to you in your most intimate
moments, and you have chosen to share it with me.

don’t worry i will be gentle with you. i want to.
let my chest be yours to cherish.

when you close your eyes, you know that
my belly will take you in. tightly.

we are closer than you are with your mom,
i’ve seen more of you than she has.

you trust me, don’t you? otherwise,
you wouldn’t come to me every night.

i’m just a softy.
i’m just your softy[1].

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[1] Inspired by Muun’s advertisement with a fat man: http://www.thedrum.com/news/2016/06/01/mattress-firm-tasks-giant-sleeping-bouncer-showing-his-softer-side