“I was in my home, and it was like a grave,” said 57-year old Sarkis Kirbukiyle, who lived under ISIS. BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio reports from Syria.
TEL ABYAD, Syria — Like the other Christians, Sarkis Kirbukiyle packed what he could and fled when ISIS militants captured his hometown.
But then he went back.
The mustachioed 57-year-old had lived in the same small apartment for 35 years, his bedroom window looking onto the quiet courtyard of the Armenian church in Tel Abyad, a town on the Syrian border with Turkey that fell to ISIS in June 2014. Taking refuge with relatives, he was going stir-crazy — until he got a call from an old friend.
The friend, a Muslim, had charted a far different course through Syria’s civil war, radicalizing and becoming an official with ISIS. Still looking out for Kirbukiyle, he warned that if he didn’t return to Tel Abyad, the jihadis would confiscate everything he owned, from his apartment to the shop he ran, which sold water pumps. There was a way to avoid this, the friend said. ISIS wanted Christians to pay jizya, the ancient tax levied on them during the times of Islamic caliphates — an era that ISIS, in its own extremist fashion, was trying to reclaim.
Kirbukiyle thought it sounded too dangerous: You cannot trust them; they can behead a person very easily. The friend promised to protect him if he followed the rules and paid taxes.
Afraid but determined to go home, Kirbukiyle returned to a town that was in the grip of ISIS’s fanatical vision of Islam. He entered a building that had been converted into a religious court and paid jizya — which the jihadis calculated by estimating his net worth — of 107,000 Syrian pounds (about $566) for the year. The ISIS bureaucrat who received the money was an African man with a long, wispy beard. He gave Kirbukiyle a stamped receipt.
From there, Kirbukiyle would experience the strange and precarious life of a Christian inside ISIS’s hardline proto-state. He witnessed some of the horrors the militants inflicted on their subjects — and saw the contrast between the Islam he’d known and respected from his neighbors and the alien barbarism ISIS practiced in its name. Along the way, he said he felt a jarring loss of dignity as a man suddenly exploited and oppressed — a personal struggle he’s still working to overcome.
He is also an example of someone who came face-to-face with the jihadis and stood his ground. “I was surviving against death,” he said, on a recent afternoon in his living room beside the church.
A portrait of the Virgin Mary hung on one wall, beside a framed print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, as Kirbukiyle poured cups of tea. Ethnic Kurdish forces drove ISIS from Tel Abyad this summer, lifting the “nightmare” that had literally kept him awake — and haunts him to this day. “It’s a nightmare that comes to me every night,” he said.