By Thurayya Ibrahim*
Monday 20 October 2014
Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity
Mosul, the first city I opened my eyes upon, the place that witnessed the early years of my childhood with all its memories, the nostalgic home I often long to see again suddenly became a place that is alien to me, one that lacks Mosul’s real essence, devoid of its culture, customs, heritage and tradition.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply the Islamic State as it likes to be described now in a betrayal of its widening ambitions – overran Mosul, Iraq second-largest city with its 1.7 million inhabitants, in a matter of days. How and why is still unclear and many aspects remain shrouded in mystery but one fact speak for itself: ISIS is like Ebola – it attacks your body at a shocking speed and as you struggle to discover the cause you must also find a cure.
Like hundreds of thousands of Mouslawis, I am baffled as to how and what caused this disease. Is it hereditary or is it something we caught like a virus, and can it be treated without us knowing its nature and origins? Surely, a disease must be identified and understood before a course of treatment can be applied and more importantly how can we be sure that it won’t return with deadlier consequences.
Although most of the media’s attention has focused either on the destruction of holy sites or on those who fled the murderous group, it is also important to learn what life under ISIS rule is like for the residents of Mosul who opted to stay. This short series about Mosul’s fall will address the changing identity of Mosul, the position of women in ISIS society, and young people’s dashed hopes of a brighter future. It will also tackle the existential struggle between ISIS and the Iraqi government and the battle to reclaim the city.
ISIS’s invasion of Mosul and other Iraqi towns did not just spell the end of the Iraqi government’s control of these large swathes of territory but it also brought an overwhelming change to the ethnic make-up of Mosul and northwestern Iraq, as well as their historical, cultural, and traditional ways of life.
The news reached me about a possible attack on Mosul through a phone conversation with relatives who wanted to assure us of their safety on that fateful day of Thursday 5 June. As it was narrated to me, events began to unfold at approximately midday when everyone in Mosul was told by the police to leave their work and return home for security reasons, with a curfew imposed on the city until further notice.
People left their work and rushed home, many had to walk for hours, as there was sudden panic and no taxis or public transportation could be found. One 60-year-old woman had to walk for nearly three hours from her workplace, a health organisation, to reach her home. “A journey that in normal circumstances would take me 35 minutes maximum turned into hours, as I struggled to find a way home after my regular taxi driver dropped me half way fearing he would get stuck as the police were closing the roads, so I had to walk the rest of the way in the blazing heat of 48 degrees Celsius,” she said.
This lady was one of many but at least she was an adult with the ability to walk the distance. Some children were trapped in schools waiting for their parents to come and collect them, while patients with serious conditions were stuck in hospitals awaiting their fate. No-one knew what was happening, there were rumours that “militants” were about to attack the city. Despite the animosity people felt towards some of the Iraqi police and army, they still had some faith in their ability to defend the city and the curfew order further assured people that the authorities were in control and probably had a plan to deal with these insurgents.
But as the days passed, alarming rumours began to circulate, with some claiming that the army had deserted the city and fled to the Kurdish-controlled area in the north, while others swore that the police had abandoned their weapons and uniform and gone into hiding. There was also talk that foreign fighters had entered parts of the city, announcing that they had arrived in Mosul to liberate the people and save them from the “evil sectarian government of Iraq”. Ordinary Mosulawis were extremely scared. They sensed the danger that surrounded the city, despite reassurance and pleas from the militants that they had no reason to be afraid. But a nation that had gone through long bitter wars, invasions and terrorist attacks for more than 35 years knew full well what lay ahead – they had seen these faces before, be it under different names and guises. A retired lecturer at the University Of Mosul who has lived through and witnessed many political and social changes throughout Iraq’s modern history told me: “No good can ever come from such a group, very few can understand the demographic and social make-up of Iraq and that is why so many have failed in ruling the country.”
In fewer than four days, Mosul fell completely under the control of ISIS. On the night of 9 June and under heavy fire (unknown to this day between whom) many people locked their houses, took their most valued possessions and headed out of their beloved city into the unknown. The risks of being shot or stopped by ISIS fighters were as high as staying at home. The fall of the security forces led to a sense of chaos and anarchy, which was not helped by all the rumours and speculation. Escape was the only option in the eyes of some. After all, even the governor of Mosul had run off and left the city to its unknown fate, along with other officials. This terrified the younger generation more, as the adults had seen so many things befall Iraq that they had almost become immune to whatever will come. One 15-year-old told me: “I keep asking baba to leave Mosul. We are in grave danger. I mean what hope do we have when all our supposed ‘protectors’ have left, but he won’t listen.”
With its rich and diverse patchwork of communities, Mosul had always been one of the more conservative cities of Iraq, but it was also simultaneously a close-knit society. Almost everyone is related to one another and if not then they are connected through a friend or work. My own neighbours were all cousins or relatives of some kind and your family name was always enough to identify your entire history. I recall as a child growing up in Mosul knowing that I could never cross the line or break the rules because it would reach my mother before I got home. Unsurprisingly, you can always spot a stranger in Mosul. For the locals to wake up and see various Arab fighters – as well as Afghans, Chechans and Pakistanis – ruling the city and walking the streets as though they owned the country was not just an invasion but an insult to every principle, belief and view held by the ordinary Mouslawi – it was an attack on their honour. A 31-year-old accountant was in tears because she was forced to push her two toddlers from her house to her parents area where there were fewer fighters. “Who on Earth are these people to interfere in our country? They don’t even speak our language or know anything about Mosul,” she said angrily.
The first few days under ISIS rule were filled with uncertainty and anticipation. Those who had taken flight were hoping for a quick end to this invasion, while the people who stayed behind were initially terrified to venture out onto the streets. People had heard what ISIS had done in Syria and they were prepared for the worst but gradually there was some activity on the roads, as young men, with the help of ISIS fighters, began removing the road blocks and the barbed wire that had divided Mosul, which the Iraqi authorities had put in place in a futile attempt to thwart terrorist attacks but which mostly succeeded in making people’s lives a complete misery and degraded them on a daily basis. As the streets were cleared and people were free to come and go as they like without being stopped or questioned, the people of Mosul were lulled into a false sense of security and hope, especially as the kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings and terrorist attack seemed suddenly to have stopped. People began to dream and think that life might return to how it was before the American invasion, oblivious to the fact that ISIS are no different to any other invading force, just more deadly.
Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity
*The author’s name is a pseudonym.