Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni city in northern Syria, has been under the control of rebels, mostly Salafists, since March. Black jihadist flags fly from the main city buildings, but there’s also fresh graffiti in the red, green and white of the Syrian revolutionary pennant. Most of the small Alawite population, who worked mainly in government or the security forces, left when the city exchanged hands. Roula Dayoub, a young nurse at one of the hospitals, did not. ‘I am the only Alawite here now,’ she says.
At the start of the uprising two years ago, religious difference was a taboo subject. But now Dayoub and her colleagues discuss it openly. ‘We’re at the level of slaughter, that’s how bad the sectarianism is now,’ Dayoub says.
‘It’s the regime that provoked it,’ says Dr Ibrahim, an older colleague. ‘They controlled everything which is why they were hated and left first. But look, you are safe living here.’
‘It’s worse in the west of the country than here,’ Dayoub agrees. ‘But still, I wouldn’t go to Tabaqa’ – a nearby town – ‘I hear they killed some Ismailis there.’
Dr Ibrahim says it’s hard to know which stories are true.
‘There are also tensions between Arabs and Kurds,’ another Sunni doctor says. ‘Everything is coming out.’
The animosity is not only about religious or ethnic difference. Dayoub’s father calls her a ‘terrorist’ for staying in Raqqa. ‘I was against the uprising from the start,’ she says. ‘I liked and still want Bashar Assad as president. Yes, there is corruption, but the Free Syrian Army is the same as the regime.’
Dayoub has not gone unnoticed: she wears what she wants and doesn’t cover her hair. Two young fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Salafist group in Raqqa, hassled her on the streets for not being ‘dressed properly’. Four men from Jabhat al-Nusra, which has links to al-Qaida in Iraq, came to her house to ask questions about an uncle in Assad’s army. They looked through the contacts and photographs on her mobile phone, rifled through her belongings and asked why she lives by herself. But the leader of Ahrar al-Sham rebuked his soldiers – the rebel groups have to tread carefully to avoid antagonising civilians and each other – and she has since been left alone.