‘If I Didn’t Write, Mosul's Story Would Have Come From The Extremists’
History lecturer Omar Mohammed spent the last few years fearing for his life. His alter-ego, Mosul Eye, became famous because it was one of the only voices in the city the Islamic State did not manage to silence.
Omar Mohammed, or Mosul Eye, as much of the rest of the world knows him.
Four years ago, Omar Mohammed was a lecturer in Mosul university’s history department. In June 2014, he and his neighbours watched in fear as the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of Iraq’s second city. Trapped in the city, Mohammed decided to fight the Islamic State, or IS, group, his own way and began to report on what was happening inside the city, even though this was at great danger to himself.
NIQASH met Mohammed on the edges of the World Media Forum in Bonn. He is currently traveling around the world, talking about what is really important for himself and other Mosul natives, now that the IS group has gone.
NIQASH: Even after all this time, there are still contradictory versions of events in Mosul four years ago. Were you there at the time?
Omar Mohammed: Things started on June 5, 2014. Daesh [the colloquial name for the Islamic State group] attacked Samarra and the authorities issued an alert, telling us to stay in our homes. We did that but got lots of contradictory reports and we could hear the sound of guns, both near and far. After a day of that, things seemed calmer so people started to go back on the street to see what was happening.
The West doesn’t know about the city’s ancient culture and history. For them, Mosul is linked mainly to the IS group.
Then there was a big explosion, apparently targeting the Mosul International Hotel. That caused lot of concern because we knew that the army command was stationed in that hotel. After that explosion, the right side of Mosul belonged to Daesh.
The left side was still under the control of the Iraqi army, who began to shell the other half of the city. But they were being guided by the wrong information. It was later discovered that a man working with the security forces was actually loyal to Daesh and he was giving them the wrong information. Locals started to get angry [at the Iraqi army] because bombs were coming down in the wrong places, and this served Daesh’s interests too.
NIQASH: Why did you decide to start writing about what was going on in Mosul?
Mohammed: If I didn’t then there would have been no real story about what happened inside Mosul. Only one story of Mosul would have been told and this would have been Daesh’s version.
NIQASH: But you were clearly taking a big risk. Over the months, the IS group did everything they could to stop Mosul residents from communicating with the outside world. How did you avoid being discovered?
Mohammed: I started to try and develop my digital security skills by educating myself on the relevant sites online, to protect myself from being hacked and to prevent Daesh from discovering my house.
I had two computers. I used to put one of them in an easily accessible place to remove suspicion when Daesh members conducted sudden inspections – they wouldn’t believe that I did not have a computer. But that computer was not connected to the Internet. I hid the other one in a secret place and used that for my writing [a Mosul Eye].
I also deliberately developed my writing style so that Daesh became confused as to whether Mosul Eye was a male or a female, or if it was a Christian or Muslim. That was also a sort of protection.
NIQASH: How did you get your information, some of which has been acknowledged to be particularly sensitive?
Mohammed: What I wrote was based on my personal experiences. I used to leave the house in the morning and return at night. I’d roam the city and the markets and try to take as many pictures as possible. Taxi drivers were an important source of information because they’re always driving around town and they get dozens of different kinds of passengers. I also knew some of the people who joined Daesh – some of them were my students from university. So I tried to stay in contact with them but, very carefully, without letting them know I was trying to get information out of them.
NIQASH: Were there any times you thought: “This is it, it’s all over, I am going to die?”
Mohammed: Two times. The first time was when I heard from one of the Daesh members that many of their senior members had been killed in an air raid conducted by the US. I published the news on my page almost immediately. But I decided it was way too dangerous because when the guy was telling this story, there were only a few people around – and I was one of them. They could easily have known it was me. So I deleted the post a few hours after putting it up.
The second time was when I went to the industrial zone in the Wadi Akab area where my uncle has a repair shop. On my way there, one of the biggest buildings in the city was shelled and I filmed the bombing and the destruction. I forgot that the place was full of dozens of terrorists who could discover me. This was a very scary feeling and immediately my biggest concern was my family.
NIQASH: When the fighting ended you decided to reveal your real identity. How did your family feel about it?
Mohammed: My mother was very surprised, she didn’t even know what I was doing, even though I used to go to the markets with her to take pictures. My students at university were shocked and those who worked with Daesh and who were still alive were also surprised. In the last video issued by Daesh about the enemies of their state, I was considered one of the worst because they couldn’t imagine that a Sunni person from Mosul was supplying information like this.
NIQASH: The battle for Mosul was long and cost the city a lot, both in terms of destruction and human lives. What has been the outcome in your opinion?
Mohammed: The most obvious result of this whole crisis is that it brought the Iraqi people closer to each other. They also found out a lot more about Mosul, which, since 2003, has been seen as a city that opposes the political process in Iraq and successive governments. The fighting in Mosul changed the Sunni community in the city and for the first time, community leaders have started to understand the value of being represented in parliament -which was new. Before they were often opposed even to the idea of elections.
NIQASH: It was particularly interesting that there was comparatively high voter turnout in Mosul, despite the destruction. Why do you think people there were so enthusiastic about voting?
Mohammed: The elections were important and they were different from all other elections since 2003. There was much more awareness about the importance of the elections in bringing about change. Before it didn’t mean so much to the population. Battles bring destruction, but they have also brought some positive changes in the mindset of the people.
NIQASH: And now you are touring the world – what are you trying to achieve with this?
Mohammed: My goal is to make our local issues international ones. I want to introduce Mosul to the international community because the West doesn’t know about the city’s ancient culture and history. For them, Mosul is linked mainly to Daesh.
We started doing this with some projects in culture, art and music. We started a major campaign to get books back after Mosul’s central library was burned and a lot of international sponsors joined in. In a few weeks, there will be another important project announced, where international figures in culture will be invited to visit Mosul, and we are also planning more musical activities.