“We were constantly at war,” a young Sunni Arab man told me, describing life in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. He had lived in the eastern part of the city for three years, the whole time under the watchful control of the Islamic State. Just weeks before I met him, he seized an opportunity and had fled.
When I talked with him in February he was in a makeshift refugee camp near the town of Hassan Sham just outside East Mosul. The town, like most of Mosul, had been utterly destroyed in the fighting. Now he and his family were crowded into a city of 20,000 refugees, living in tents supplied by UNICEF and staffed by generous donors from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
I was brought to the refugee camp by colleagues associated with the Kurdistan university that had co-sponsored my trip to the country in February, 2017. They knew that I was interested in meeting refugees who had recently fled the control of the Islamic State, and through their contacts I was able to secure permission to one of the newest camps, constructed just a couple of months ago on territory that was formerly controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Daesh, an acronym for the Arabic phrase for the movement which happens to spell out a word similar to “bullies” in Arabic).
I was interested in finding out what life was like under ISIS rule, and it was as harsh as I had expected. The Sunni Arab guy described it like living in a prison. Since he was not willing to join ISIS he was fired from his job in the government-controlled water works. For over two years he had been out of work, doing odd jobs and selling family mementos to make ends meet. Though he was in the preferred religious and ethnic group from the rulers’ perspective, he was not the image that they had in mind for a perfect Muslim. When he was caught smoking a cigarette, for instance, he was put in prison for forty days.
One of his friends joined our conversation and explained that he too had been out of work. He previously was in construction, but under ISIS no new buildings were erected, so he sold his car and then various articles of furniture to survive. But at least he was alive. When ISIS found out that he had previously worked as a security guard for the Iraqi army he was forced to march to an open field with twenty other men accused of various offenses. Then to their shock the ISIS guards started firing their weapons at them. People were killed right beside him, the young man told me. He fell down as if he was dead, lying still next to the corpses of those who had been shot. For hours he lay there until he thought it was safe to sneak away. He then hid until the liberation forces came and he was able to spirit his two wives and seven children away from Mosul and out of ISIS controlled territory.
Fleeing Mosul was not an easy thing, as it turned out. My ideas about how wars end come from old World War II footage where the troops triumphantly march down the middle of the street and the jubilant population cheers from sidelines, waving flags.
The war with ISIS is not ending like that. In fact, in many cases it is not clear exactly when or whether the fighting has ended, since ISIS fighters and supporters have infiltrated the houses of ordinary civilians, some of whom may have been tacit supporters and others not. Even their neighbors do not know. All the residents were intimidated by ISIS as long as it had control. When things changed, no one knew whom to trust.
The liberation troops entered the areas of Mosul carefully, taking fire from ISIS on all sides, and wary of landmines and booby traps. The liberation troops were Iraqi Army or Sunni tribal militia; Kurdish Peshmerga troops and Shi’a militia were also fighting ISIS in the region but were not supposed to be in the vanguard of combatants that enter into the inner city. When they thought that they had liberated an area—say a city block of apartment houses—they often retreated to their encampments for the night, only to find the next morning that ISIS had retaken the block. In some cases the ISIS fighters had never left; they had found secure hiding places or tunnels in the buildings and were waiting for the chance to reassert control.
This meant that those civilians who were desperate to leave, such as the two fellows with whom I spoke, had to make several split-second decisions. They had to decide whether their neighborhood was truly free of ISIS soldiers, and whether the time was right for them and their families to make their getaway.
In both cases, therefore, the two men with whom I spoke decided to sneak out in the middle of the night. They chose a time when they thought that the liberation forces were near and ISIS security guards would be busy fighting them. When they and their wives and small children escaped in the cover of darkness, carrying only as many family possessions as they could hold in their hands, they had only a vague sense of where to go. They headed east, towards Kurdistan and freedom.
Soon they encountered checkpoints, and these presented problems. They had to make quick decisions about whom to trust. A roadblock manned by what may have appeared to be Iraqi Army might in fact be ISIS loyalists pretending to be part of the Iraqi Army. Making the wrong calculation about whom to trust could lead to deportation back to Mosul. Or at worst they would be killed on the spot.
For this reason they avoided checkpoints, scurrying around them and behind houses, until they were far from the city. At that point, when they felt reasonably secure, they identified themselves as refugees to what they hoped were units of the Iraqi Army. Mercifully, they were safe. A truck then brought them to the refugee camp where they were assigned a tent and for the first time in years could breathe sighs of relief.
They had arrived at the camp only weeks before I talked with them, and what was surprising was how ordinary it all seemed, how manner-of-factly they told their stories of escape. Part of the reason was that they have not had much time to reflect on their ordeal, since they have had to adjust to a new life, and figuring out how to survive in a refugee camp with tens of thousands of others.
One of the first things one of the men did was to trim his beard. He did not become smooth shaven, since the style for men in Iraq is often to keep some semblance of beard. But he did not want the bushy Muslim beard that ISIS required of all men. He also began to listen to rock music on the little portable radio he carried with him, blasting its tunes from a Kurdistan radio station. In Mosul he also had the tiny portable radio, but he kept it hidden. Now he could listen to rock music in the open, and smoke cigarettes whenever he wanted to. These were small symbols of freedom, but important ones to him.
Both men wanted to return to Mosul to rebuild their lives. That is not possible at present, of course, since the city is still a war zone. Moreover, even when the last ISIS fighter has been killed or captured, the city will be left in shambles. I passed by several villages that on the outskirts of Mosul which, like many parts of the city itself, have been utterly destroyed. In the villages I saw, not a single building was still habitable. And even if they could rebuild, the infrastructure of water, electricity and sewer lines will take months if not years to reconstruct. And then there is the fear of landmines and booby traps that the ISIS fighters have left behind.
To rebuild all of this will take money and civic will. Without monetary support from the Iraq government or from the international community, the civic resolve may wither as well. Already there are reports that the Iraq city of Fallujah, only recently liberated from ISIS control, may again slip into the hands of ISIS given the frustration and desperation of the residents of the city who are having great difficulty in rebuilding their lives. As horrible as ISIS control may be, it has provided a kind of civic order and funding to maintain a city’s infrastructure.
To the fellows with whom I spoke in the refugee camp at Hassan Sham, these were problems for the future. Right now they were happy to breathe freely and imagine the possibilities of an improved life, even if that road to rehabilitation will be as perilous as the journey that they had just made in fleeing Mosul.
My thanks to Rebeen Fadhil, a journalist and social activist with the Harmony project in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, for arrangements and translation assistance.