Refugee camp
Ahmed is now one of thousands of refugees living a rootless existence in Bulgaria Getty

"To be completely honest, I don't have a single Arabic word that would describe how it feels to be a refugee. But I've got an English word: It feels like s**t."

Ahmed is never less than brutally honest about what he has been through these past nine months. He speaks with raw emotion, angry and bewildered at the way Islamic State (Isis) militants have stripped his life away, reduced him to a day-by-day existence, living off favours and handouts, his hopes and dreams reduced to irrelevant luxuries.

Ahmed, only 20, is an aspiring journalist from Syria without any formal training, or the means to buy a new camera. Yet the story he scooped last autumn would be the pinnacle of any reporter's career; that story has, in turn, taken over his life, giving him enough tales to fill an entire book – albeit a very harrowing one.

In September 2014, Ahmed secured an exclusive interview with IS. He went behind their lines, with a bravery that belied in his years. The militants wanted him to do their propaganda for them. When he refused, they hounded him mercilessly, threatening to slaughter him like a goat.

For the past eight months, Ahmed has been living on the run, forced to smuggle himself into first Turkey and Bulgaria, surviving off grants from journalist aid groups. All the while he has felt IS breathing down his neck.

Now he finally feels ready to tell his incredible story.

'IS reached out to me online'

For Ahmed, getting in touch with IS was actually fairly simple.

"As Syrians, living in Syria, whether we were journalists, or freelancers, we were living all together" he says. "And before the terrorists showed their real colours, they were living amongst us too. We knew them and had contacts with them. But afterwards, when they started kidnapping journalists and killing them, we saw the truth of them being terrorists, and journalists had stopped talking to them and broke off all contact.

"The man I spoke to for the interview used to live in my neighbourhood and we'd kept in touch for a little while, but I had lost contact with him for a long time. He reached out to me online and asked how I was doing and so on, and I asked him where he's been. He told me his story, how he joined Isis, because before he was part of Al-Qaeda, and after joining Isis he disappeared for a long time, about six months, during which time he was training and so on.

He said 'yes, we want you to interview us, and in return I will let you see the true story'

"So we spoke about why he had left Al-Qaeda and why, and what his story was. Then he asked me to write an article about him and his story. Around this time I saw a tweet from this newspaper, asking for anyone who's been in contact with Isis to get in touch. So I did."

After receiving a commission, Ahmed began speaking to his contact via Skype and Facebook. When his contact asked how they would contact the interview, Ahmed said he would prefer to do it face to face. But this would be problematic.

"I was sacred to go into the Isis camps," says Ahmed, "so he told me I should pick a location where I felt safe, and then tell him where it is. I decided that I wanted to have the meeting in Turkey, and he told me not to bring a laptop or a camera or any electronics. They would provide me with all the equipment I needed to film.

"So we agreed and I went to Istanbul. When we met he asks me, 'What is it that you want from us exactly?' So I said that it was actually him that had asked me to interview him and Isis, to show the world they are not terrorists, but a people who want to protect their land. So he said 'yes, that's what we want, and I'll let you see the true story.'"

Ahmed's contact revealed he was one of a band of nine militants whose mission was to greet foreign recruits in Turkey, including Americans, Germans, Kazakhstanis, French and Russians. He agreed Ahmed could do some interviews, and some filming, "but I couldn't film until he gave me permission and told me what to film".

He adds: "So the agreement was that I would do a film on foreign recruits coming to Isis - why they had chosen to join the cause and fight in Syria with Isis and not Al-Qaeda like they usually did, and what they were planning to do while there."

Lions of Rojava
Ahmed's task was to carry out an article on the foreign fighters waging jihad for Isis Facebook/Lions of Rojava

Ahmed was taken to a couple of mud huts, where the foreign militants were staying. They even gave him a camera and a laptop and told to film, but on one condition: he had to present his footage to the IS militants before leaving the camp, and they could delete anything they chose.

When Ahmed began filming, his contact's conviviality soon disappeared. "As I could speak a little English, I tried to talk to the American recruits and ask them questions I had in mind for the interview," he says. "But the man kept telling me to keep quiet and not speak to them in English, and translate everything I had already asked them, asking them only what he ordered me to.

"I found it very difficult, therefore, to ask any direct questions that I had in mind, and I was forced into opening conversation on topics very far off what I really wanted to ask and what was of real importance."

When the interview was done, Ahmed was taken on a journey to the Syrian border for some more filming. It was a gruelling four-day journey, the IS militants forced to take a circuitous route for fear of being tracked. They ended up in a town called Orfa, close to Tel Abyad. His original contact left him to film, saying he had business to attend to elsewhere.

Ahmed was taken to a large, relatively modern house, conveyed in a car with tinted windows. He was prevented from seeing the surrounding area; the militants were anxious to ensure the details of their location were kept hidden. Again, he was told to film the foreign fighters.

"They spent all their time praying and reading the Quran," he recalls. "The only other thing they seemed to do was drink coffee." But once more, Ahmed was forbidden from talking to the foreign fighters directly. All questions had to be channelled through his jihadist chaperones.

'They ordered me to go to Raqqa – there was no turning back'

Soon it became clear IS wanted even more from Ahmed. "After I was done filming all they wanted, my contact rang me and said that I now had to go into Raqqa with them and film inside their stronghold," he recalls. "I refused outright, and told him that I didn't want to go into Raqqa, and that he initially promised that I would only have to go as far as the border.

"He told me that there was no turning back now, and that I had to cross the border here with them. He said that I'd only know the truth if I go and film inside Raqqa, and that he had brought me here to film everything, and that I had to complete the job.

"He told me that I had to show the people who sent me that Isis fighters are not terrorists like everyone says. I kept disagreeing and refusing to go into Raqqa, knowing that it wouldn't bode well for me if I did.

"He then told me that he was given a task to carry out, on the Amir's orders, and that he'll deal with me when he gets back from his mission. His tone of voice was one of force, he'd said it was an obligation for me to enter Raqqa, and that if I tried run or do something else in Turkey I would be killed without a second thought. And of course the bodyguards he'd left with me while he was on his mission where heavily armed.

"I was terrified at this point, as I was in a hostile region I didn't know. I tried to make it seem like I was not nervous, tried to retain composure. I thought to myself that I would need to get to the town centre of Orfa, a busy area, if I were to get a chance of slipping away unnoticed."

Isis fighters drive a US Humvee
Ahmed baulked at the idea of going to Raqqa Reuters

'They shot me, but God helped me escaped'

Ahmed's contact eventually returned and told him they were leaving Raqqa in a few hours' time, and he had to prepare himself.

He says: "In a panic, I told him that there was one more very important scene to shoot before we crossed the border. I told him that it was crucial to film them drinking coffee in a cafe in the centre of Orfa, as it would show the world they were normal, down-to-earth people sitting in a coffee shop, and not barbarians or extremists as people believed.

"He bought into my tale and we made our way into the busy centre of Orfa, where I planned on slipping away between the crowds, giving me a better chance of escaping than being surrounded in the quiet, derelict village we were in previously.

Isis conviction propaganda
TRAC Terrorism

'The idea is tangible; the good life is real and available to all who aspire to the ideals of the Islamic caliphate. In these terms, IS supporters have more concrete evidence (in their opinion) to support their unquestionable faith.'

Veryan Khan and Jasmine Opperman explain how IS use conviction to generate support. Read here.

"Once we reached the town centre, I tried to make my escape and was met with their gun shots as I ran away. I received a shot to my right hand, but thankfully the bullet didn't go through, skimming my fingers. But somehow I managed to jump into a taxi. God helped me that day."

So began a fugitive existence, a long, dark tunnel with no end in sight.

"When I was on the run from them, there was no need for me to change address or name or anything because I was in Syria, and they didn't know my real name as they'd only known my alias, or activist name," Ahmed recalls.

"I did have to change my current residence, but this is very easy to do in Aleppo, where myself and most of the activists stayed, as the vast majority of it was evacuated, and most the houses left empty, making it easy for us to find shelter. As journalists, we would never stay in one place anyway, I had many places to live and set up media offices in various locations.

"I had to lay low, however, after I'd escaped them, as they (IS) had published reports about me and I began receiving serious death threats. I thought that they would not be able to find me in Syria, but I soon started receiving threats via Skype and online through WhatsApp and Facebook which I'd used to get in touch with the IS guy to begin with.

"He told me in these threats that his uncle was a fighter in Al-Qaeda and after reading the articles I wrote about him, he would also come after me."

'After they promised to kill me, my father told me I'd ruined the family'

At this point, Ahmed realised he was in real danger. The time for hiding in Syria was over.

He says: "After some time, I thought to head back to my safe house which nobody, not even my family, knew about, and which I only use for emergencies. I had met a freelancer who had come into Syria to write a story, and decided to bring him with me.

"When we arrived, there was a note stuck to my door with my full name on a piece of paper which read 'we will slaughter you like they slaughter goats.' This was a sentence I heard them use a lot.

"When my father saw me, he told me a lot of things in our regional dialect which I cannot and will not translate, because they were words spoken from a father to his son, and at that moment, it is hard to comprehend what he was saying. But what he said to me clearly was, 'Get out of the country, you've ruined yourself and you've ruined us'.

Ahmed started contacting organisations abroad, for the protection of his family as much as himself. Soon he realised that fleeing to Turkey was the only option.

He says: "I am not allowed to travel by plane out of Syria because being a journalist and writing against the regime is considered a crime. I also have contacts with activists and have worked closely with other media and humanitarian organisations that the regime considers terrorists. So I'm not permitted to hold a passport and leave the country legally. The only border I can attempt to cross without a passport or travel document is the Syria-Turkey border.

"My initial plan was to stay in Turkey while my friends and other organisations in Europe would help me get a visa on the grounds that I was a freelance journalist and my life was under threat, so I would be given a visa to any country."

Tal Abyad Syria
Ahmed's first thought was to join the throng of refugees flocking to Turkey Umit Bektas/Reuters

Ahmed tried to enter Turkey in late October but was turned away as an illegal immigrant. When he tried again, he was successful. The refugee camp turned him down but a friend helped him find a hostel, where he spent the next six weeks, living off a €350 grant from Reporters Without Borders.

Eventually, when the money ran out, he crossed to Bulgaria, in what he described as a "a very long and tiring journey". A guide showed him the way across the border, accepting his phone in exchange.

'I stopped everything for six months, so they thought I was dead'

Ahmed spent the next six months in a refugee camp in Syria, sleeping four to a room in a four-storey house. He is reluctant to talk about the refugee accommodation, for fear of offending his Bulgarian hosts. But at least life is safer now, and his father sounds less terrified when they speak.

Isis militants parade in Raqqa, Syria
Source: Twitter

The record is clear: once you let the evil takfiri genie out of the bottle, you cannot and will not control it.

Read security expert Bob McFadden's piece on the 'toxic beast' of Isis here.

"After I changed my WhatsApp and Skype details, and cleaned out my Facebook friend list, the threats have stopped coming," Ahmed says. "Seeing as I'm in Bulgaria now it's difficult for them to get to me.

"I also took precautions and stopped all my journalistic activity for six months. That would have been sufficient for anyone who was after me to believe I was dead."

Ahmed has just begun the latest stage of his journey. Since 9 June, he has been living with a girl he met in a local bar. They speak in English, and she helps him with what she can. He has been granted a Bulgarian ID, but says: "All of Europe is refusing Syrian people who try to enter with Bulgarian nationality. I will lose money and they will return me."

His sole concrete objective is to buy a new camera and laptop, "so I can go back to doing what I do best and telling the world what is happening in my country, and who is killing innocent people. That is all I aspire to do".

No matter how many stories he secures in future, Ahmed will struggle to find anything as dramatic, or as traumatic, as the tale that has engulfed his life.