Editor’s Note: The names of the people featured in this report have been changed to protect their identities.
Sitting in her modest apartment near Amsterdam, Wafa turns on her phone and opens WhatsApp. She’s filled with a mixture of hope and fear.
Covering her face with her hijab, Wafa, 40, weeps as she waits for two blue check marks confirming Maha has received her message — the only sign that her 23-year-old daughter is still alive.
Maha and her nearly 2-year-old son Odai are trapped in Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital in Syria and one of the most isolated places on Earth. When she can find a rare internet connection away from watchful eyes, Maha talks to her mother via WhatsApp voice message.
“When I don’t hear anything, when there is no news, it’s like something inside me is dying,” Wafa says.
When Wafa arrived in the Netherlands after fleeing Raqqa in 2014, she pleaded with her daughter to follow. Instead, Maha stayed behind with her husband and son, promising to join her mother later. But she wouldn’t get the chance. ISIS’ religious police beheaded Maha’s husband after finding a message to a Syrian regime soldier on his phone.
Now, as US-led coalition forces encircle the ISIS stronghold, an escape seems even more hazardous and Maha’s voice messages to her mother have become increasingly desperate. With so much emotion in their voices some sections are inaudible.
The following conversation has been adapted from voice messages exchanged between Maha and Wafa on WhatsApp since January. Wafa shared these messages with CNN.