People fleeing Mosul. Romina Peñate/Demotix. All rights reserved.
“The night before we first saw IS militants in our streets we couldn't sleep because of the sound of the fighting outside. But when we got up in the morning we were totally surprised. Our home is very close to a military post, less than a kilometre away. Even outside of our house all over the ground there were military uniforms, helmets, boots and also guns. The army had fled, and they abandoned weapons to the value of millions of dollars on the streets and in their barracks."
Telling me this was Fuad, a young doctor in his mid-twenties whom I met in a refugee camp of Yazidi Kurds from Shengal in Turkey. Located on a former military base, the camp was surrounded by snow-streaked mountains. Pale-skinned and wearing a thin moustache, Fuad was himself from Mosul.
He told me many things about life in his city during the past year, after the attack by the jihadist organisation known as the Islamic State. Reliable sources speak of half a million refugees, as all minorities such as Shi’a Muslims, Christians and Yazidis had to flee. Sunnis such as Fuad’s family—or those who converted under pressure—were the only segment of the population able to stay.
Even in a country as war-torn as Iraq, the violence of the Islamic State (IS) seems beyond anything that has happened before. Despite this, there is a way to classify and analyse the terrorist organisation: they are the amalgam of the Sunni resistance in Iraq and Syria.
What unites both countries is a modern history of Sunni oppression. In Syria, the Assad regimes systematically marginalised the Sunni majority for decades before the Arab Spring. In Iraq, the marginalisation of Sunnis began more recently. When Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime was toppled by the 2003 US invasion, a Shi’a dominated government was put in place. The Sunnis were numerically a minority in the country, but for decades had constituted the ruling class. As they were increasingly side-lined, resentment grew.
The Sunni extremists of the Islamic State had formerly fought in Iraq, from 2006 to 2008. They were pushed out by government troops fighting alongside pro-government Sunni tribes. But when the Arab Spring happened and spread to Syria this proved to be a windfall for IS. For a long time the two Jihadist organisations of the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front had collaborated, but after a rift between leaders Al-Golani and Al-Baghdadi, many fighters from the Al-Nusra front defected to IS.
In 2014, IS returned to push for Iraq again, "reinvigorated" from their stint in Syria. In Iraq, Shi’a president Al-Maliki had not given the Sunni tribes that had earlier helped keep Iraq stable the promised seats in parliament—or even paid out their salaries. Now, these Sunni tribes saw it in their best interest to fight with IS. When IS took Mosul in 2014, the city was essentially handed over.
The rank and file of the Iraqi army had been coming to Mosul because soldiering was well-paid work. But they were not willing to risk their lives or health for a city in which they were outsiders. The army was also corrupt on all levels. Corruption scandals concerning several high-ranking officers came out in December 2014, but stories of torture, murder and extortion by Mosul’s former top general, Mahdi Gharawi, had been told even before that.
Of course hindsight is always perfect, but it now may seem to have been inevitable that in any seriously threatening situation the army would prove itself unreliable, if not entirely useless.
Another man from Mosul I met was Hashim, a student of English literature. We first chatted in our hotel, in the city of Duhok in the Iraqi Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, which has remained safe throughout the war years. Refugees from the south of Iraq now occupy many of the hotels in Duhok.
Hashim reclined on the worn-out lobby sofas in jeans and a casual blue shirt as our conversation veered from current politics to art and our favourite writers. It was a déjà vu experience for me. Every time I come to Duhok—eight years ago, three years ago and earlier this year—I meet at least one student from Mosul filled with sadness about not being able to continue his studies.
"My family is still in Mosul, but I don't
want to return”, was one of the first things Hashim told me. “Mosul has become
a huge prison for two million people. You cannot smoke, you cannot listen to
music, and women cannot go out by themselves. But that's not even it—my family
smokes in the home and listens to music, of course they don't obey those silly
rules. Still, I cannot bear to see what they are doing to my city. All the
violence and destruction is just too much. I could not bear looking at it and I
Fuad had told me about the situation in Mosul just before the IS invasion:
"Of course Mosul had been a very unsafe place for a long time, but if you stuck to certain areas, you could live your life relatively unperturbed. Still, there were bombings or kidnappings every other day in other parts of the city. And that's why some people didn't mind IS coming. The jihadists used to explode huge car bombs that killed not only military but also many civilians at the same time. So while some people in Mosul didn't exactly like them, in a way, they welcomed them when they arrived. They thought, ‘at least there will be quiet now’. After years of having both military and jihadists in the same city and the two groups attacking each other, they thought if there is one group at least that'll be over.”
Fuad was staying by himself in a hotel near the refugee camp, while the rest of his family lived in exile in Duhok. The family had left Mosul together, but Fuad decided to move to a refugee camp where he could work as a doctor. When I travelled to Duhok I also met his father Rashid, a university professor.
Rashid was a portly man with sparse white hair, wearing a suit the day I met him. He was also a good source of information about Mosul:
"For one month or so after IS arrived, they did not really do all that much. Most shops were open, life continued. Our Christian friends were still living among us, and my wife and daughter went about their business in the city just as normal. They drove their cars and went around wearing only the usual headscarf, showing their faces, of course. Only after a period of thirty or forty days the rule of having to cover up entirely with a black niqab (facial veil) was enforced. Now, women cannot show their faces or hands. And if the veil they wear to cover their face is of too thin a material, they get whipped if they are caught.”
Later, there were news
stories of how members of the IS all-female Al Khansa brigade disfigured
the faces of unveiled women by throwing acid on them.
I also asked the men about some other, incredible, stories I had read in western news sources. For example, that in 2006 the jihadists had made rules that restaurants were not allowed to sell salads that mixed "male" cucumbers and "female" tomatoes. And that one of the new city rules was that women are not allowed to sit on chairs.
Fuad's opinion was this: "I've never heard of these stories, but that does not mean that they are completely invented. You have to understand that those jihadist organisations are not monoliths at all. There are a lot of crazy guys relishing the power they get by holding a gun, and they will act on their own, making up absurd rules and threatening punishment just to see others grovel in fear."
I asked professor Rashid if, among those who stayed in Mosul, he personally knew anyone who had collaborated with IS. He replied: "I lived my whole life in Mosul, I know many people in that city, so of course some of the men I know became members of IS. Believe me, I know them; these men have no religious feelings at all. They do this only for the money."
I asked Rashid why he had decided to leave the city. Since he and his family are Sunnis, they could have stayed. They did not have to move to a whole new city, leaving their house and possessions behind. He grew sad as he tried to explain:
"The first thing that happened was that IS asked the Christians to either leave, convert to Islam or pay an exorbitant jizieh, the Islamic tax on minorities. The Christians took what they could, their gold and their money, and they left. But IS had planned this. They made roadblocks on the highways out of Mosul. There, they took all the jewellery and money from any Christians passing. Everything they had on them. The whole thing was nothing but a huge thievery operation."
Another woman now living in Erbil, a Christian herself, had told me how IS militants had put a gun to her son's head to make him hand over whatever they had. Rashid went on, chest heaving:
"A few days after that they went on a destroying spree, they dynamited shrines and mosques across the city. They also destroyed Nabi Jirjis mosque [the prophet George mosque], one of the oldest Sunni mosques in Mosul. It dated to the fourteenth century…Do you know how many they senselessly killed in the prisons, for example? They published two or three videos, but so many others became victims, too. Anyone whose name so much as appeared on the election list."
It clearly hurt him to talk about it, and it hurt me to push him any more. I nodded, thanked him, and took my leave.
And what was the most recent news out of Mosul? Hashim told me he usually spoke to his family there every day. But two weeks ago they had banned mobile phones, and cut signal tower cables. A few days ago they cut off the internet as well.
“Now I don’t talk to them at all...After a couple of months under IS, we started to have shortages of kerosene and gas. And although there was food, prices rose sharply—for vegetables, for instance. With time, living conditions became tougher and tougher. In the end, some families in Mosul were taking their children out of school to save the tuition fees, since they could not pay for food anymore.”
It later became clear that the prohibition of the internet and telephones had happened in preparation for a US attack. IS feared that the locals would give away their position, and there was news that IS flogged and chopped off people’s hands for using their mobiles.
On 3 February, US warplanes started hitting targets in Mosul. The bombing campaign is on-going. There have been civil casualties, such as when on 22 April a house next to an IS hideout collapsed, killing a family of four. While the airstrikes have killed hundreds of IS fighters since February, they are terrifying to live with for the Mosul population.