When the city of Mosul still used to hold its famous Spring Festival – a holiday instituted by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein – many locals used to gather in the more elevated Minassa area to see the festivities.
But now Mosul locals are gathering here for a completely different reason. Radwan Khaled, 53, a retired army officer, is one of them. He recalls being in about the same spot when he used to have to come here to salute Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of the Iraqi army’s top military commanders during Hussein’s regime. And he is still raising his hand - except today it’s because he’s trying to get a better connection for his mobile phone, hoping to find a network here.
It has been around two weeks since the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which took control of the city in early June this year, decided that mobile telecommunications should be cut off in Mosul. And Khaled and the other people with him, waving their phones around, have come here to try and access their government-paid pensions, salaries and other social welfare payments, which have been transferred electronically via Iraq’s Qi card system.
While the shutdown in telecommunications has had a big effect on many of the estimated 1.5 million people still living in Mosul, the first to really feel the effects were those paid by Qi card, an electronic banking system. Once the Qi card has registered that money is available in the holder’s account, they can get the cash from any outlet in the area that takes the card.
Happily for Khaled, getting up high with his phone allowed him to download the amount of pension he was owed. However the actual payment process turned out to be slower than he expected – supplies of cash money were running out in the city.
“This is just a big joke,” Khaled said. “It’s a war on the livelihoods of the people of Mosul. There are thousands of elderly people waiting out in cold because of the stupidity of the Islamic State group. These people are now deciding the fate of the second biggest city in Iraq!”
The next day, Khaled says, he was finally able to access some cash using his Qi card. “I felt like I’d won a very valuable prize,” Khaled says. “When I left the place I got the money, people were looking at me so enviously.”
The crowds of people gathering in the Minassa area to do their “banking” has seen many others take their Qi cards and travel further away.
One 62-year-old Mosul pensioner who wished to be known only as Um Omar travelled 15 kilometres north of Mosul to the Shalalat area, which is best known as a spot for tourism and recreation. Um Omar had to take her youngest son with her because women in Mosul are no longer permitted to move around without a male companion.
A taxi took Um Omar and her son into the countryside and on the outskirts of the city, they soon found what they were looking for: groups of young men on the sides of the road waving cash at them. The young men were acting as unofficial, roving bankers on the side of the highway, giving money to those who had the right details and receiving 1 percent of every salary in return.
Um Omar gets social welfare payments from the Iraqi government every three months and since her son, who used to be a policeman, has not been able to work with the Islamic State, or IS, group in the city, she has been the sole supporter of a family of six.
Um Omar managed to get US$500 from the roaming bankers. “At least we can get this money,” she said. “I only hope that things don’t get worse.”
While those receiving social welfare payments and pensions from the Iraqi government have managed to find a way to access their credit, the commercial businesses of Mosul have not been able to find similar solutions. Business has ground to a halt, many of them say.
The money changing office that a local man who wished only to be known as Abu Nour runs, in central Mosul, near the Corniche market, ceased to be busy almost as soon as the mobile phones were cut off. “Ninety percent of our deals were done by mobile phone,” Abu Nour told NIQASH. “I know my customers better by voice than by sight,” he explained.
“There is a lot of confusion right now,” says Abu Nour, who’s been trying to make phone calls using the Internet. “Solutions will take time but as yet we haven’t found any answers. We can’t do all our business face to face.”
Abu Nour and other currency traders say their business is now limited to local currency.
Locals are also worried that the IS group might also decide to cut off the Internet. But they’re also retaining the somewhat dark Iraqi sense of humour alive – on various Facebook pages, locals have been posting pictures of homing pigeons and suggesting that maybe these animals – used historically to send messages in the Middle East – might be a good replacement for mobile phones.