Despite propaganda, few options for fun in IS-ruled cities


Musical chairs, tug-of-war, watermelon-eating contests, ring-tossing contests, balloon-blowing… In the past weeks, the Islamic State jihadist group has published propaganda photos showing local youths enjoying these games in several Syrian and Iraqi cities that are under its rule. It may look like good fun, but, as our Observer explains, it belies the fact that most forms of entertainment have been banned since the Islamic State took over.

The photos of the games were described by the IS group as having been taken in Tal-Afar in Iraq, as well as in Abu Kamal, Hajin, and Raqqa in Syria. France 24 spoke to an activist from Raqqa, who recently fled and is now in exile abroad. Hassan Eeasa is part of the activist network “Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently”, several of whose members have been murdered for their work exposing life under IS rule. He is in communication with colleagues who have stayed behind.

A game of musical chairs in Tal-Afar. Photo published by Islamic State group media operations.

“We live in a big prison – these games are just propaganda”

The only purpose of these games is to show that people are happy and having fun, which is far away from the reality in Raqqa. The locals who participate in their games don’t really have a choice – you can’t say no to the Islamic State. Of course, the kids have fun. But the adults know that they live in a big prison, and that this is just propaganda.

A game of tug-of-war in Tal-Afar. Photo published by Islamic State group media operations.

People here used to play football in the streets, but you don’t see that any more. The Islamic State’s morality police told locals that they can’t play any sports, with the exception of horse-back riding and swimming – if you’re a man. Men do go swimming, but as for horse-back riding, well, we’re in a big city, so it’s not exactly a widespread sport.

A watermelon-eating contest in Tal-Afar. Photo published by Islamic State group media operations.

Because of this situation, people have turned to entertainment inside their houses, hidden from the morality police’s prying eyes. Lots of people play card games. Many houses have big gardens, and I know many parents who play sports like football, basketball and volleyball with their children. Indoors, many young people smoke and drink alcohol, too, even though it’s very risky to do so – they can be punished by lashings, heavy fines, prison time or even death.

A ring-tossing game in Hajin, Syria, under the banner of the Islamic State flag. Photo published by Islamic State group media operations.

“Many foreign fighters for the IS group play football”

According to David Thomson, an RFI journalist who is an expert on jihadist groups, the Islamic State group’s position on pastimes is not always clear-cut.

Some forms of entertainment are banned in all the zones they control, and are punished severely: drinking, smoking, listening to music and watching satellite TV. The internet, meanwhile, is only accessible in internet cafés, which are under strict surveillance.

However, there is no official pronouncement banning sports like football or basketball. But rules can vary from city to city - for example, we know that in Raqqa, which is considered IS’s capital, women are not allowed to drive, but in the Al-Bab region, they are allowed. So rules for sports may also fluctuate.

I know that many foreign fighters for the IS group play football to relax, and some of the French fighters have even watched the Euro Cup games!

A French Islamic State fighter published this photo of himself playing football on his Facebook account. (It has since been taken down).