Mosul residents fleeing Daesh’s hell to cold Kurdish-controlled camps
By Cathy Otten
During the battle to retake Mosul from Daesh, Nujud Ali, 45, lay on the ground, wounded by a bullet that had just shot straight through her right shoulder and out of her back, knocking her over.
The hail of bullets greeted her when she opened the door of her family’s home to a Daesh fighter in Gogjali, eastern Mosul, earlier this month, as the Iraqi counter terror services advanced into the surrounding districts.
“Iraqi soldiers came close to our house so Daesh started shooting at us,” says Nujud’s husband, Sultan Akhther, who saw her fall to the floor but couldn’t do anything. He has short grey hair and a stubble. “I couldn’t help her because if I left, they would shoot me with a sniper.”
She was taken to a hospital in Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region by the Iraqi forces. “It still hurts,” Nujud tells Newsweek Middle East, looking exhausted and sitting outside her tent in the newly built Hasansham camp. “I’m sad and upset because without reason I was a victim.”
The offensive to retake Mosul from Daesh was launched in mid-October by the Iraqi army and its allies against an estimated 5,000 Daesh fighters.
By early November, the Iraqi forces entered Mosul’s eastern neighborhoods and encountered heavy Daesh resistance, including multiple car bombs, suicide attacks, snipers and mortars. With nearly one million civilians still inside the city, Daesh is using them as human shields, making them march alongside their convoys further into the ‘Caliphate’ or gathering them together to obscure their attacks.
Before retreating, Daesh fighters carried out last minute executions of those accused of working with Iraqi forces. In the town of Hamam Al Alil, 20 km south of Mosul, a mass grave containing 100 bodies was found, according to the Iraqi military.
At the entrance of the Khazer camp, east of Mosul, Khalid, 56, describes how his cousin was taken by Daesh even after offering to repent for working with the army. His body was later discovered in the mortuary by a family searching for their own missing loved ones. He had been shot in the head. “There is no more pain and trouble than this,” says Khalid, before walking away.
As convoys of Iraqis fleeing Mosul arrived at the entrance to the camp, they greeted relatives they hadn’t seen for two and a half years, collapsing into each other’s arms and making long-awaited phone calls with tear-streaked faces.
“They treat us like animals”
After five days in the hospital in Erbil, Nujud and her family are now living in Hasansham camp, east of Mosul, with more than 10,000 other Iraqis who fled the latest round of fighting. Just under 50,000 Iraqis have been displaced by the Mosul offensive so far.
By the entrance to the camp, two men in their early twenties from Gogjali smoke and watch people pass by. Their mood is sour. Their ID cards had been taken away from them by Kurdish security to be checked against lists of Daesh members, gleaned from local intelligence, and the men are yet to retrieve them.
“This camp is close to being in jail,” says Satar, 22, a former carpenter who asked to use a nickname because he still has family living inside Mosul. “They put us here and destroy our dignity. They think all Arabs are Daesh, but in fact we fled from Daesh.”
Sitting next to Satar is 25-year-old Muhammed (also using an alias), who says that at least under Daesh, they weren’t made to feel different for being Arabs.
“Look at this [Kurdish] soldier over there ready to kick anyone, they treat us like animals,” he says, adding that this treatment would make people more sympathetic towards Daesh.
“No,” says Satar, disagreeing. “That won’t make people join Daesh but it may make some people return [to Mosul].” Satar was whipped by Daesh 18 times for smoking in public. He explains that the group destroyed the city and caused wide spread psychological and economic problems for its citizens.
“It’s better to be under shelling and at least live with dignity,” Muhammed replies.
The men debated whether American airstrikes had hit civilians or not. More than 450 civilians have been killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in and around Mosul since November 2014, according to Airwars, a group that monitors anti-Daesh coalition’s air campaign. Official figures cited by the U.S. are far lower.
At the end of October, just after Daesh fighters were pushed out of the Christian town of Bartella, east of Mosul, Father David, a Syriac Orthodox priest from the Mart Shmony church, stood looking beyond the roadblock to where fighting was taking place. “It is a great happiness. I can’t describe my feeling especially when the bells will ring again in the church,” he says of the arrival of Iraqi forces in the town after more than two years of Daesh rule.
Nobody knows if Christians would stay in Iraq after Mosul is retaken, he adds. Christians have been leaving in large numbers since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the instability that followed. “This is a darkness,” he remarks sadly.
Just then, a soldier from the counter terror services standing nearby joins the conversation. “We will not allow you to flee,” says Hyder Khalil, 30, from Baghdad.
“We are here to protect you,” he assures the priest, adding that he’d been injured in the battle this summer to retake Fallujah from Daesh.
Father David listens quietly as Hyder explains that there were a few Daesh fighters left inside the town, and that the evening before, Daesh had launched a counterattack, “leaving their bodies on the floor.”
Down a dirt track from where Father David stood, families from the village of Baskhira were returning for the first time to inspect their damaged homes. The town, which sits under Mount Zertik, used to be home to 3,000 Iraqis from the Shabak minority.
Iraq’s Nineveh province, with Mosul its regional capital, is famously diverse, both religiously and ethnically.
In its wake, Daesh has left wide spread physical destruction, but also distrust and suspicion among former neighbors and friends. Without work on a reconciliation process, the danger of further conflicts remains.
Amnesty International reported that in the south of Mosul, a tribal militia were guilty of torturing and detaining men and boys in revenge attacks against Daesh suspects.
Iraqi Colonel Muhammed Al Wagga who works in the office of the Nineveh Operations Command, says that tribal revenge is not a problem—“it is part of the tribal tradition in Iraq”—adding that elsewhere in Iraq, family members of Daesh were not allowed to return after liberation.
A Kurdish lawyer stood surveying the burnt ruins of what was his garden full of olive trees and grape vines in Baskhira.
He was joyful to return after two and a half years, but dismayed by the damage; an airstrike had turned his house to rubble because it was used as Daesh headquarters.
Daesh smashed through the walls of houses in the village to hide from air attacks and surveillance drones. On some homes, the word ‘dangerous’ is scrawled, indicating that explosives lie in wait.
Muhamed, the lawyer, says he would be even happier once he can come back to live full time—adding that he would need help rebuilding his house, and that he wants to wait for power and water to return first.
He adds that no one in the town supported Daesh, and that the group kidnapped the village leader. A Shabak man from a neighboring village disagrees and says many villagers had joined the militants, showing a newfound distrust among those returning.
Just outside Baskhira, the Peshmerga were busy building an earth berm which would be the new border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.
As if to emphasize this, the thud of mortars could be heard and smoke rose from the Iraqi force’s front line a few kilometers away.
Back in Hasansham camp a week later, the light was fading. A 41-year-old father of nine stood outside his tent as his wife made bread, and warned that people in the camp could not speak freely because Daesh had messengers among them.
“I don’t have a problem with Daesh,” says a young man who used to sell bikes in Mosul, as he walked back towards the entrance of the camp, which by now, without any power, was almost pitch black. He wanted to join Daesh, but his dad wouldn’t let him.