Sneaking Smokes and Risking Death — This Is Life Under Islamic State in Mosul

WIB front November 7, 2016 1

A young Iraqi girl, recently arrived from areas liberated by the Iraqi army from Islamic State militants, cries as she waits with relatives to...
A young Iraqi girl, recently arrived from areas liberated by the Iraqi army from Islamic State militants, cries as she waits with relatives to receive food from aid agencies in Dibaga Camp near Makhmur, Iraq. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Escapees recall militants’ brutal crackdown on basic freedoms


Ahmed sits in a Western-style cafe in the Kurdish capital city of Erbil, a glass of soda on the table in front of him. He’s got a mobile phone pressed to his ear.

He hangs up. “They can hear shooting and explosions,” he says, smiling.

The caller was his brother, ringing from their family home in Mosul. Above our heads, we can hear U.S. military helicopters flying around.

For most, knowing the sounds of battle can be heard from their home would be worrying. But for Ahmed and his family still living inside the Islamic State’s own Iraqi capital, it could mean that maybe, just maybe, ISIS is losing its grip on Iraq’s second-biggest city after more than two years of occupation.

The operation to retake Mosul from ISIS has been a long time in the making. Mosul fell to Islamic State in June 2014. A small force of around 800 extremists attacked the city, inciting panic in the 30,000-strong Iraqi military and police garrison.

Iraqi forces fled and ISIS took control of Mosul and its 1.4 million people. In the intervening two years, a U.S.-led international coalition deployed to help retrain and support Iraqi and Kurdish troops. Government forces counterattacked, slowly pushing back militant forces. Liberating Mosul will be the culmination of the campaign.

Ahmed’s family can hear that moment violently taking form, right outside their home’s walls.

A refugee mother and her children make their way through an alleyway in the Dibaga refugee camp near Makhmur, Iraq. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Ahmed left Mosul six months ago, escaping with his wife and child in an overnight journey that involved sneaking through ISIS-held territory and through the improvised minefields laid by the militants.

For him, staying was not an option. “They whipped me,” he says, referring to a time when he fell afoul of the harsh rules ISIS imposed on Mosul residents.

In fact, Ahmed got off lightly. He was sentenced to be whipped 20 times for shaving off his beard, but got away with just six lashes. “He hit me once on the back near the shoulder, then on my lower back and the third time across the back of my knees.”

When his punisher prepared to strike again, Ahmed says he looked at a friend of his standing nearby — and laughed.

Ahmed says he doesn’t know why, but his laughing caused the militant whipping him to stop. His punisher returned his I.D. card and sent him away.

He says he knows he was lucky. “Most people get whipped in public as ISIS read from the Khoran. They also usually get hit many more times.”

A young Iraqi refugee, newly arrived from areas where the Mosul offensive is taking place, smiles after receiving bread from an aid worker in a school at the Dibaga refugee camp. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Public executions are frequent in Islamic’s State’s Mosul. “We used to stay in,” Ahmed says. “No one in my family wanted to see this.”

Others who lived under ISIS in other parts of Iraq tell similar stories. “If you had a phone, they would kill you,” says Mohammed, a 51-year-old from the town of Al Shora, around 20 miles south of Mosul.

Mohammed and his family now live in Jedh, a camp for internally displaced persons outside of Qayyarah, just 10 miles south of Al Shora. The camp is one of many that have sprung up to house a huge influx of IDPs fleeing contested territory as the militants falls back.

“They told everyone that we could not leave and made us grow beards—we couldn’t even smoke!” Mohammed recalls. “Life was shit.”

Mohammed and his family left Al Shora after ISIS picked the town as one of its defensive strongpoints against the approaching coalition assault. The militants told residents to leave and head north to Mosul so that they, the ISIS fighters, could place bombs in their homes.

Amid the confusion, Mohammed and his party escaped south, to safety. They hid in the desert for five days before arriving at the Jedh camp.

Since then, Iraqi troops have recaptured Al Shora. But the town is not safe. Bomb squads are still clearing the IEDs the militants planted in people’s homes. ISIS forces are still attempting to infiltrate the town. The night before I interview Mohammed, Iraqi police shot dead seven extremists in Al Shora.

The body of an Islamic State fighter, one of seven who attacked the recently-liberated Iraqi town of Al Shora on Nov. 1, 2016, lies under a blanket after being covered by the Iraqi police. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Even though most of the people Ahmed knows in Mosul were not happy with Islamic State’s rule, some accepted the group — and others even welcomed it.

He mentions one neighbor, an engineer, who supported the group. “His sister was a doctor — he was an educated man!” Ahmed exclaims.

Possibly worse than those who openly welcomed Islamic State were those who did so covertly. “There are lots of informers in Mosul,” Ahmed says. “Some for money and some because they believe in ISIS.”

The extremists even have a name for their spies. Failkhair. Ahmed says the term roughly translates as “Samaritan” — the Biblical do-gooder.

“ISIS came to the house of a friend,” Ahmed says. “They told him to come with them and that he must bring his Samsung phone.” Ahmed learned that the militants demanded to see photos on the man’s phone. “The ISIS guy went straight to one picture of my friend and a cousin who was serving in the Peshmerga,” the Kurdish militia.

“They knew the make and model of phone my friend had and even the exact folder that contained the picture,” Ahmed says with a look of disgust. He shakes his head as he explains the sadly obvious fact that the informer would have been a close friend … or even a family member.

A week later, the militants told the friend’s family to pick up his body from Mosul’s official department of forensic science. ISIS had executed him with a single shot to the side of the head.

Smoke and flames rise from burning oil wells, set alight by retreating Islamic State militants near the Iraqi town of Qayyarah. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

In Mosul, merely possessing a mobile phone SIM card is punishable by death. Ahmed claims ISIS recently killed an elderly woman and her daughter for that reason.

“I.S. militants say that non-ISIS are Al Wam,” Ahmed says. “It’s used as a dismissive term meaning they don’t care and we can be killed, if needed.”

“Now [that] I have left, I am apostate,” he continues. “They would have to kill me if they found me.”

Ahmed mentions that there used to be ISIS projector booths that showed films of the militants’ battlefield victories. “Sometimes they would put the shows on inside small shops.”

One night a coalition air strike demolished all of the booths. “Two days later, they took two prisoners and executed them. ISIS said they were informers. They shot them in the head. One bullet each.”

Risking death, Moslawi people still keep phones and SIM cards. The Kurds have erected new mobile phone masts near Mosul — and the signal is sometimes strong enough for city residents to place a call to friends or relatives living outside of Islamic State territory.

“I.S. take from the Khoran what they need,” Ahmed says. “They do things like cutting off the hands of thieves. They are just thugs and criminals.”

A Kurdish T-55 tank advances as Peshmerga fighters take part in the Mosul offensive in the Bashiqa area on Oct. 20, 2016. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Even though Ahmed is safe in the Kurdish region, his problems with ISIS persist. “If they know I have escaped, they would try to take everything I own.”

It seems that not all militants adhere to their own strict rules. Ahmed recounts one time when he and his brother got caught smoking in their garage. Instead of punishing them, the extremist — who Ahmed says may have been Chechen — asked for a packet of cigarettes.

If the fighter had been a member of Al Husba, the ISIS religious police, there would have been a harsh punishment — if not death — for smoking.

Ironically, Ahmed says, there’s really only one kind of cigarette brand in Mosul. It’s sold at inflated prices … by Islamic State.

The so-called “caliphate” has also banned sports and even outlawed shirts bearing the logos of popular Western sporting teams. But in the recently-liberated towns of Bartella and Hamdaniyah, sports equipment was found inside Islamic State facilities.

A football goal used by Islamic State militants is seen in a hall of the Mart Shmony Church in Bartella, Iraq. Damage to the rear wall of the hall that resembles a Christian cross was caused by the extremists. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Ahmed still suffers the psychological strain of almost two years living under ISIS rule — and under the threat of coalition air strikes. When he first got to Kurdistan, the sound of a jet flying overhead would make him shake with fear.

He recalls smoking a cigarette outside of his new home. “I saw a car that ISIS often uses in Mosul,” he says. “I instantly threw the cigarette away and started to shake.”

He tells me that his brother has the same type of car, but since the extremists arrived, it sits unused in a garage. Everyone in the city knows the car attracts air strikes.

Ahmed says he’s looking forward to Islamic State’s defeat in Mosul. “After ISIS, we will have so many stories to tell our children and grandkids. They took us to the dark ages!”

“Things will not be easy,” Ahmed adds. “The people [of Mosul] will not let things lie. People will seek revenge. Unless you were there, you cannot understand.”

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