Kurdish-led forces in Syria rescued seven Christians from IS-held Raqqa on Tuesday (8 August).
“Our forces have saved two Armenian families,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Circassian militias.
The Syriac Military Council (SMC), a member of the US-backed SDF, said the seven were of Syriac and Armenian origin and came from the city of Raqqa, which IS in 2014 claimed as the capital of its “caliphate”.
The four women and three men escaped on foot under cover of darkness via a route opened by the SMC two days earlier.
Sawsan Karapetyan, 45 said of their lives under IS occupation: “They [IS] forced us to wear the headscarf and allowed us to reveal our faces to distinguish us from Muslims. We had to hide our faces to avoid insults.”
“I didn’t want to leave, but there was so much bombardment around us that we fled,” Mrs Karapetyan told the AFP news agency, still wearing the black garment IS forced women to wear.
Civilians have been caught in the crossfire as a US-led coalition fight to regain control of Raqqa.So far, anti-IS forces have recaptured around half the city in two months. Mrs Karapetyan said the last three days had been the most terrifying, “because of the fierce bombing”.
Karadij Karadjian, 50, who was also rescued on Tuesday, said Christians had been forced to pay an extra tax, or jizya, because of their faith, adding: “We were humiliated and insulted. What sort of homeland … makes you pay an additional tax because you are different?” He said the amount of tax they had been forced to pay had increased from year to year, from 55,000 Syrian pounds (£80, $100) to 66,000 (£100, $130), then 166,000 (£250, $320).
Mr Karadjian told AFP: “Daesh [IS] blew up all of the churches, which devastated us. I haven’t prayed inside a church since 2013.” But he added: “If we rebuild them, we will pray again in Raqqa.”
One of the 200 fighters from the Syriac militia, Alexi Chamoun, told the Kurdish ARA News agency: “Daesh [IS] are using civilians as human shields inside the city… Some civilians are fleeing and surrendering themselves to us, and with them, children and women.”
Some 43 Christian families were recorded as still living in Sunni-majority Raqqa last year. The majority of the city’s Christians fled to the Kurdish-held Hasakah province in 2014.
Mrs Karapetyan explained that she fled her home with nothing save her rosary – and her two parrots, “Lover” and “Beloved”.
“It would have been a shame to leave these birds in Raqqa. I left everything except them,” she said.