Iraqis who lived under Daesh’s rule recall the horrors they had to endure
It was a Friday noon in late June as Abu Mohammed, 40, and a couple of his friends headed toward the local mosque in the nearby town of Haji Ali in the southern tip of Nineveh province, a governorate in northern Iraq, to say their prayers. As they reached the mosque in the blistering summer heat, they found a gathering of people in front of the place.
A militant from the radical group Daesh stood behind a man kneeling down in front of him, with the latter’s hands tied from behind. People were forced to stay there and witness the brutal public execution scene. Facing the increasing number of those arriving to say their Friday prayers, the militant declared the crime of the captive: he had been caught eating in public in the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to fast. And the punishment: Death.
As soon as the first militant was done reading the charge, another militant fired a bullet into the back of the kneeling captive’s head.
“Since that day I’ve been always wondering how can you kill someone for such a petty excuse,” Abu Mohammed tells Newsweek Middle East as he sat in the shade of a mosque, in a camp for the displaced in Dibaga, Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
It’s been two years since the establishment of Daesh’s so-called caliphate in late June 2014, but those who until recently lived under the group’s rule, are but happy to be done with it.
Abu Mohammed, who served as a traffic police officer in the nearby city of Mosul, before Daesh took over large parts of northern and central Iraq in mid-2014, says the group “was a calamity that descended upon us.”
“I can tell you that death was better than living under Daesh. Life was difficult and you felt like a prisoner. You were restricted in all respects,” he adds.
Daesh forced men to grow a beard and prohibited smoking. In some cases, the group’s militants would even pick on men for their dresses and urge them to dress in an Arab-style long thobe, Abu Mohammed says.
After Daesh took over Mosul and other parts of Nineveh, the group asked Sunni members of the security forces to “repent” and pledge not to cooperate with the Iraqi authorities again. Abu Mohammed and many other fellow members of the police and army followed the orders and repented. But even then, such people were often viewed suspiciously and put under watch.
One of Abu Mohammed’s cousins who was a former police lieutenant was killed by a bomb under suspicious circumstances. The family believes Daesh was behind the assassination.
Many of Abu Mohammed’s former colleagues in the police or army were also killed or they simply “disappeared” without any explanation. In some cases, where Daesh would actually acknowledge killing a former member of the police or army, it would only send a photo of the dead person to his family and would say he was killed for being an “apostate.”
In Abu Mohammed’s own case, he says, he was made to visit the militant’s office for renewing his pledge of repentance “probably 10 times.”
“I had to confine myself to home most of the time because I did not want to draw their attention to myself,” says Abu Mohammed. “You never knew when or why you were going to be arrested by them and it was best to not make yourself noticeable to them, as much as you could.”
Abu Mohammed’s living conditions deteriorated greatly after Daesh took over his area. With his salary no longer accessible, he had to tend to farming on his family’s land which helped him and his family of eight to just get by.
And when in early July, Iraqi forces reached the village close to Haji Ali where he was residing, he and his family were waiting for the right moment to escape.
On July 3 at noon, he and the rest of the family headed out of the village of around 20,000 people, while fighting was still ongoing. They knew that Daesh had planted bombs on the outskirts of the small town on the eastern bank of Tigris River, but they didn’t know where exactly. One of Abu Mohammed’s cousins who was walking ahead of the rest stepped on a planted bomb and died. But the family continued its escape until it reached the Iraqi troops’ line.
“It felt like getting out of hell,” says Abu Mohammed as his eyes welled up. “All Daesh had for me was losing two dear cousins and two years of hardship and fear.”
Despite Daesh’s propaganda about an idealistic life under its rule, the accounts from people who lived under the group’s control, indicate otherwise.
Another resident from Haji Ali is 45-year old Um Yusef. For women like her, the experience of living conditions under Daesh were even harsher.
Holding the hands of her youngest son in Dibaga camp for internally displaced persons she appears much older than her age. Deep wrinkles cut through her skin.
Women were forced to cover their faces and bodies, says Um Yusef, whose face is uncovered now revealing traditional dotted dark blue tattoos.
“I couldn’t even go out to the market on my own to buy some bread or vegetables.”
She recalls a story where one day a couple of Daesh militants had knocked on a neighbor’s door to warn them about one of the women in the family spotted a few times in front of the house, in conditions deemed inappropriate by the group.
“I laughed,” says Um Yusef with a grin. “I spoke to them later. One of the family’s girls had appeared at the door a couple of times in colorful dresses with her hair covered but not her face or hands.”
Still, the worst part for Um Yusef was the daily ordeal of survival as food prices had skyrocketed since Daesh’s control. It was a sign of Daesh’s failure in providing for the population under its reign. Um Yusef’s husband worked as a day laborer if he got a chance, or cultivated the land they had outside the town.
Despite the raging poverty, a bottle of cooking oil was sold at almost $3 while it cost nearly half the price in areas outside Daesh’s control, such as Erbil. A sack of wheat flour used for making bread, a staple of Iraqi cuisine, to cost for as much as $25 but that dropped as little as $8 in Erbil.
“By God, it was very bad,” Um Yusef says. “Daesh left no life for us.”
She fled with other members of her extended family and neighbors on June 18, amid the fighting.
Inside the city of Mosul, Daesh’s largest stronghold in Iraq and Syria, resentment among the local population had been growing against the group. Daesh was initially received rather warmly by many Mosul residents who were fed up with what they saw as sectarian-motivated Iraqi security forces.
Two years since Daesh took over Mosul, the city’s residents “are just grateful to anybody who could rid them of [it] (sic),” says 31-year old Mosul resident Mustafa, who prefers not to use his real name.
“Daesh is recruiting and teaching our children how to behead [people] and make bombs; and is ideologically brainwashing them and teaching them how to become monsters,” he says.
The last salary which Mustafa had received was in April 2015. Until the time of his escape from Mosul in early June, he was a medical staff member in a local hospital in the city.
To him, among the numerous atrocities that Daesh has committed in Mosul, the mass expulsion of the city’s Christian minority in July 2014 stands out.
“When they forced the Christians [out], it made people really sad. It was such a huge loss. This was dismantling the fabric of our society. Christians lived among us for centuries and prospered among us. Daesh destroyed that relationship.”
As a Muslim, Mustafa is troubled by Daesh’s beliefs and practices and says the group’s only accomplishment has been “tarnishing the image of Islam.”
“If you live under their rule, you’ll understand their state is a state of khurafa, (Arabic for fable), not khilafa, (caliphate), says Mustafa playing on the rhyming Arabic terms for both respectively.