By Thurayya Ibrahim*
Wednesday 22 April 2015
Now we have reached the concluding part of this series about life under the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), though, in reality, the end is far from near for the people of Mosul. While writing these articles over the past few months, I held on to a dim hope – perhaps an unrealistic one – that things would change and a great transformation would take place, with the people of Mosul, backed up by the Iraqi army, regaining control of our beloved city.
No such thing is likely to happen soon, for reasons beyond my understanding but one thing is clear: what ISIS has built over the years cannot be combated and reversed in a matter of months. They have existed and operated within Iraq, in one form or another, for at least eight or nine years, first under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Back then, they had already begun slowly to grow and expand, terrorising people to build an atmosphere of distrust and animosity, taking ransoms to finance their group and recruiting the marginalised and vulnerable into their activities, building a solid foundation for what would eventually become known to the world as ISIS. This was later strengthened when they took hold of Mosul in June 2014, where they tightened their grip by destroying and smuggling the city’ cultural heritage, tearing up its diverse and rich ethnic tapestry, introducing a new and distorted law and order – basically remapping and recreating a city that had existed for centuries.
To ensure the continuity of their power, ISIS targeted the vulnerable youth of Mosul – after all, this is the future generation of the city and the real threat to their dominance. When ISIS invaded Mosul, it was a week or so before the end-of-year exams for universities, colleges and secondary schools. All of these came to a halt, leaving the future of many of the city’s young in tatters. The enormous uncertainty of the situation made any decisions, especially those with life-shaping implications, extremely difficult.
I interviewed three young people, who all asked that their real identities not be revealed out of concern for their safety. I asked them what life has been like since ISIS took over Mosul last summer.
The youngest is 14 year-old “Muhammad” (not his real name). Prior to ISIS’s arrival, he had attended a prestigious school for top pupil. His outstanding performance that year had, impressively, exempted him from sitting the finals. Muhammad’s ambition was to become a doctor and travel the world. But these dreams were soon dashed when ISIS took over and the education system took one of its worse batterings in Iraq’s modern history. They began by dissolving all the university faculties, with the exception of the medical and maths departments because they regard anything else as un-Islamic and the “evil teachings of the Godless West”. Muhammad, who has a real talent for learning new languages and a deep passion for exploring the outside world, suddenly lost everything he once loved and cherished. Like many of his generation, Muhammad has never known a peaceful or prosperous Iraq. He was born during economic sanctions and witnessed nothing but American-led wars, sectarian conflict and almost daily suicide bombings by terrorist groups. The only real hope for Muhammad was education – a path that could eventually take him out of Iraq.
For months after ISIS’s entry into Mosul, Muhammad stayed home, no going out, no school, no electricity for almost 18 hours a day, no water, no phone and, most recently, the internet was cut off. “What life have I got now? There is no escape… [ISIS] will never let us have a future, we could die any second, it is just a matter of time until there will be no city called Mosul and all its people will either be dead or displaced.” The young whizz went on to remind me that the “world will not end because of dead Iraqi people… but could be a solution to this long nightmare”.
It is heart-breaking to hear a teenager speak in such a defeated, crest-broken adult tone, but is it any surprise? These young people have not seen a single sign of hope for a country that has been embroiled in numerous conflicts and destructive wars since before they were born.
Despite the unwelcome changes made to the education system, Muhammad had no choice but to return to his school when ISIS issued a warning to all the city’s students that they would face serious consequences for absenteeism. Muhammad’s family considered leaving Mosul but they realised that, sooner or later, they would have to return when their money ran out. Moreover, people in Mosul are very family-orientated, so leaving your extended kin behind is not an option many are willing to entertain, even, or especially, under such dire circumstances. In addition, as I’ve noted before, many people who escaped regretted their decision as they experienced difficulties and discrimination for being from Mosul, with some labelled ISIS supporters or accused of being a burden. Moreover, those who left lost their homes which were overtaken by the jihadist group, which issued a law making it legal to confiscate abandoned houses.
Back at school, Muhammad discovered that he no longer had female teachers, and received no language, art or history classes. Instead, pupils receive instruction in ISIS’s doctrine and creed. It is a chilling thought that these children are being taught the draconian ideology of ISIS, sugar-coated under the guise of being “Islamic”. Eventually, some children are bound to believe and follow what they are being taught. Due to a shortage of teachers, some subjects, though approved by ISIS, are not being taught. For example, Muhammad does not have maths classes, as his previous teacher left for Baghdad out of fear for his safety and replacements are hard to come by.
The nightmare continues for Muhammad, who is not even sure whether this academic year will be recognised by Iraq’s education ministry. Students who stayed in the city may have to repeat the academic year or travel to other government-controlled cities to sit the exams, which carries many risks.
Muhammad’s brother, Zaid (also not his real name), is six years older than him, a third-year medical student at the University of Mosul, who was just starting his exams when ISIS descended on the city, demolishing any hopes of completing the academic year. Later on, the Iraqi government announced plans for university students to take their exams either in Baghdad, Kirkuk or in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Students who could afford the travel costs and were willing to take the risks involved opted for Kirkuk because it was the nearest city to Mosul and officially an Iraqi government-run city – which is less trouble that entering Kurdish areas where the government there has imposed strict regulations on Iraqi Arabs entering their territories.
Zaid travelled to sit his exams with his two cousins: one is a medical student, while the other is studying dentistry. Once they completed their exams, they arranged their return to Mosul with a trusted taxi driver. But before they reached their destination, they were stopped by ISIS fighters who wanted to know where the boys had been and the reason for their travels. One of the three fighters who spoke in a Mosulawi accent ordered the boys to get out of the taxi and strip off for a lashing. The taxi driver, scared of receiving a similar punishment, claimed he knew nothing about them and was merely driving the car. The three youths were speechless with fear and were shocked as to how a fellow Mouslawi could be so brutal and so zealous as to punish them for the crime of visiting an “infidel” state. Another fighter, who may have been from Libya judging by his accent, stopped the Mouslawi from carrying out the lashing by joking that: “I may need a dentist or a doctor one day so I will let you go.”
This did not please his colleague who seemed eager to punish fellow Iraqis. The boys breathed a sigh of relief and eventually arrived home. When the result came out and they had all passed, Zaid did not let the harrowing experience deter him from going back to Kirkuk and enrolling at the local university that had reserved places for students in all the affected areas. Getting there was not easy but Zaid is a bright student who could not just give up, so he pretended to be a labourer and seized the chance. Thankfully, Zaid passed safely and is now into his second semester there. However, he had to leave his parents and only brother behind and since communications with Mosul were cut off on 30 December 2014, he has not spoken to them. His cousins, Nassar and Ali, stayed behind in Mosul and decided to attend the ISIS-run university of Mosul. They had figured that they would, at least, be with their co-students and taught by the same faculty. But they had not realised that ISIS would be monitoring the university closely. The female students were allowed to attend lectures but were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe and sit apart from the male students.
Nassar narrated one incident which occurred in front of him: one ISIS fighter yelled at a girl for not being “fully clothed”. She could not tolerate the pressure anymore and threw her veil at them, shouting, “Damn you all. What do you want from us?”
This did not go down well and the ISIS men commanded the teaching staff to contact her father and ask him to come. Everyone knew what that meant: the father would be punished for his daughter’s outburst. The situation was resolved when the faculty and staff persuaded the ISIS fighters to suffice themselves with an apology from the girl. Since that day, the young woman in question has not returned. Female students have generally opted to forego the harassment and humiliation by staying home.
Circumstances for female students are much worse than for their male colleagues. Girls who were studying subjects which were abolished by ISIS had two choices: to travel to other cities like the male students or to stay at home. It is much harder and less acceptable for a girl to travel alone without her family, especially in the current dangerous climate. Women who were studying engineering – a faculty that was deemed as “heretical” and dissolved – were given the option to transfer and study medicine instead. Many took this opportunity. A lecturer at the medical faculty informed me that: “These girls have no knowledge or grasp of the subject and are just avoiding being trapped at home by studying something that is alien to them.”
During a recent Friday sermon, ISIS ordered all the men of the city between 14 and 50 to be ready for the “big fight” or risk being executed. Nassar and his brother Ali were told by their parents to flee. The journey to Kirkuk, which normally takes three hours or less, consumed a massive 16 hours as the boys sought out alternative routes. They are now reunited with their cousin Zaid, but the nightmare is far from over. Arabs are facing discrimination in Kirkuk at the hands of Kurdish forces.
“There is a strange feeling in a city that once upon a time you thought you knew like part of your body,” admits Zaid, reflecting on life under ISIS in Mosul, as his voice began to crack. “It is hard to trust people and even harder to just walk down your own street.” He went on to tell me how, once, he was driving his mother to work when he was intercepted by ISIS members. “For a minute there, I thought how does this guy know my name. Then I recognised him, he was in my year at university, very studious and smart but I don’t know what happened. How they convinced him to turn against his own city, I just don’t know.”
Nassar took over from his cousin and offered his own analysis. “Life in Mosul is hell on earth,” he described. “You have to follow strict rules or face lethal consequences. That’s why so many youths chose to be the ones with power rather than the oppressed.”
He described the day the Iraqi national football team reached the semi-finals of the Asian cup and were facing Iran, a game which the whole country was excited about. Nassar was watching the match with his friends at a local café when ISIS members came and ordered them to leave and warned them against watching such things. Football, snooker, ping-pong, cards, backgammon, chess and volleyball are just some of the sports and leisure activities that have been banned, as have smoking and music. Nassar, frustrated, went up to the head of the hisbah (ISIS patrol) and asked him why ban sports, to which he received the reply: “We want to build an Islamic state that can combat the world and we need our youth to spend their time studying and thinking, not wasting their time.” Nassar informed me of another youth who was driving his car and listening to music when he was stopped, ordered to leave his car, had his CD player destroyed and his car confiscated. No one knew the young man’s precise fate.
Both Nassar and Zaid concluded the interview with a reminder of what the youth of Mosul are living. “Imagine no electricity for the whole day so you can’t watch TV, listen to music, play computer games… no proper education, no youth clubs, no activities, nothing – an empty life,” said Nassar. “There’s also no water and if you go to the river to get some ISIS will force you to pay a tax.”
I was left speechless, slightly ashamed of my life of luxury and saddened at how a whole generation has been stripped of the best years of their lives.
Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul
Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity
Part IV: ISIS’s war on women
* The author’s name is a pseudonym.