A few days ago, a Mosul woman who wished to be known only as Umm Uday for security reasons, noticed unusual goings-on in the neighbour’s garden. There was a group of young men there and they were digging in the garden on an ongoing basis – she couldn’t see why.
Three days later, a group of different young men drove some SUVs to the next door neighbour’s house and began unloading weapons, boxes of ammunitions and a number of metal drums.
What she and her husband had feared was coming true: their neighbour’s house was becoming a storage depot for weapons belonging to the Sunni Muslim extremist group that took over the city in early June.
Umm Uday’s neighbour in Mosul had been a Christian and along with almost all the other Christians living in Mosul, the family had fled shortly after the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, took over. Their house had been confiscated by the extremists who were now using it for their own purposes.
And this house is not the only one where this is happening. Locals say that the IS group are relocating into civilian neighbourhoods, using empty houses abandoned by their owners or confiscated by the group’s fighters, as storage depots or worse still, bomb-making factories. Moving into residential areas obviously makes it extremely hard for any air strikes to accurately target the group without causing civilian casualties.
Hundreds – possibly thousands – of private homes have remained empty for weeks now in Mosul, which formerly had an estimated population of 2 million.
What Umm Uday saw next door is being repeated in other areas, including the Al Arabi neighbourhood, which is on a supply line leading directly to the IS group’s frontline in their fight against Iraqi Kurdish forces near the Mosul Dam.
Mosul father-of-three, Bilal Samir, says he has seen metal drums and strange cars at the house of his former neighbour, a local official who also left the city when the IS group took control.
“There’s always something going on inside the house and in front of it,” Samir says. “People come and go carrying bags of equipment and cables and wires.”
Samir believes the extremists are manufacturing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, there as well as putting explosives into vehicles that will become car bombs.
“We expect disaster any minute,” Samir says. “And we were so frightened all the time that I took my family to live at my brother’s house in another neighbourhood. I did this after one of the people working next door, who told me he was responsible for booby trapping cars, said that the IS group is fighting a war for Islam and everyone who is scared of this, should move away.”
The IS group has also taken over large industrial areas and they are working inside factories and workshops there. Locals say that factories that used to specialize in metalwork or engineering or plumbing are now being used to produce IEDs and car bombs. Dozens of the IS group’s fighters work in the factories, going about their business freely; some quite possibly worked in the factories before June.
The IS group started inventorying real estate in Mosul last week – each neighbourhood has been divided into four sections and each section was named after the official who was counting up real estate.
In a neighbourhood now called Bisan there were three abandoned houses – two of the owners had apparently left due to the state of the city under the IS group. But one of them belongs to Omar Kanaan and his family who went to another city, Kirkuk, about a month ago. Kirkuk is under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military.
Kanaan says he was surprised to know that his home had apparently been confiscated by the IS fighters. After much effort, and by getting his neighbours to testify that he had just gone to Kirkuk to get his sick wife some medical care, Kanaan was allowed back into his home by senior IS group members.
While Kanaan was lucky and prevented his home from being turned into an explosives factory or weapons depot, many in Mosul have not been able to – and those who left Mosul certainly cannot.