A year and a day has passed since the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of one of Iraq's major cities, Mosul. On the occasion of this anniversary, the Islamic State, or IS, group celebrated in their own way. They had their cars touring the city streets, playing songs noisily and their fighters distributed sweets to passers-by. Mosques were told that the anniversary was to be a major topic of discussion at Friday sermons and that the slogan of the discussion should be about this motto: “The IS group will prevail and expand”.
Many people in the city didn't feel quite as happy about the anniversary. Mosul has changed dramatically in many ways over the past 12 months. There's been what could be described as a “social coup” that residents sum up in a variety of ways.
Previously Mosul was well known for its diverse population – although the city had a Sunni Muslim majority population, there were also Christians, Shabaks, Turkmen and Shiite Muslims living here. Even though the city, with a population of around 2 million, was dangerous – it had been a base for the IS group's parent organisation, Al Qaeda, for years - there was also a rich cultural life in the metropolis. Now there are only Sunni Muslims – although they include Kurds and Turkmen as well as Arabs – in Mosul.
For the first time Mosul is empty of all of those diverse sectors, Saeed Muhsen, a local reseracher, told NIQASH. “It's become extremely difficult to overcome the big rift between the different sectors of our society thats been created,” he says. “Even if displaced people could return to their homes it would be a very difficult decision for them.”
“The presence of the IS group has also fuelled the ongoing conflict between ways of the city and the countryside that we have here,” Muhsen says. “The IS group has favoured local villagers who have become more pwoerful in the city.” He thinks that this is actually one of the most annoying things for the city dwellers, not to mention a threat.
“Villagers have made good use of the IS group's presence to increase their influence in our city,” says another local. “Our city has become one big village.”
Over the past year the face of Mosul has changed. The IS group have destroyed some of the city's most prominent and important historical landmarks – some of which, it is suspected, have been sold off for profit.
The faces of the people of Mosul have also changed. It has become a city filled with bearded men and heavily veiled women. Almost everyone goes to their local mosque regularly and nobody drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes.
“My husband has a beard and my daughter and I wear a veil, so that we are abiding by the rules set by the IS group,” says Suad Yasser, a former employee at the University of Mosul, noting how much her life has changed. “I am no longer able to leave the house unless I am accompanied by a man from the family.”
This is all part of the IS group's cunning plan, Muhsen suggests. “The emphasis on clothing and behaviour is well planned,” he argues. “Even the vocabulary that is used by the extremists is becoming more popular among the people – and they don't even notice how their way of speaking is changing.”
The younger people of Mosul are even more vulnerable, Muhsen continues. “Children and adolescents are attracted to the atmosphere of violence and exciting adventures. These children will become a foundation for truly devastating violence in the future because they're seeing terrible acts – like beheadings, amputations, stonings and people being thrown from high buildings.”
“The stronger party is always able to impose its ideology on others,” he concludes.
On a financial level, the city's economy has been paralysed by the IS group. There is a virtual army of unemployed in Mosul now and many local business people believe this is also deliberate.
“The IS group is waging a war against our livelihoods,” says Sayed Latif, a former cigarette seller. “It's trying to thwart any project that could generate an income. This means there are no more wealthy people in this city and a new, affluent class has started to emerge.”
Most of the people in this class are members of the IS group, says the merchant, who was recently arrested by IS members enforcing the law that says Muslims shouldn’t smoke; he spent time in prison, had his goods confiscated and had to pay the IS group almost all of his savings as a fine. “I lost everything,” he says.
Latif believes that this is also a deliberate ploy. The IS group is impoverishing everyone in the city so that the poor are forced to embrace the group. The IS group has a finger in almost every profitable pie in Mosul, collecting taxes, taking a share of profits or enforcing fines. This means IS members end up well paid and able to set up other money-making projects in the city. Mosul locals see this and compare it to their own increasingly destitute circumstances.
On the other side of the coin, Mosul is now cleaner. The IS group wants to be seen as an administration capable of looking after the city and a month ago, the group began a campaign to clean, pave and light the city streets. This was an important achievement, says Saad Abdo, who used to work as an engineer for the provincial council before the IS group arrived, because successive Iraqi governments were never able to finish that job.
“Also, the city is now 90 percent safe,” says Abdo, who supports the IS group. “That is another of the group's most important achievements. The only source of real concern are air bombardments by the international coalition.”
It may well be true that the city is now cleaner and safer – but it has come at a cost. In a large city like Mosul, the IS group depends on a number of different forces, including its Islamic police and an intelligence network of collaborators and supporters, to control the populace. The IS group appoints their own judges to their own courts and the justice system, while allegedly based on traditional Sharia law, is often amended to suit the group's needs; one of the judges was well known for beating defendants on the head with a shoe.
But the IS group's biggest and most effective tool is terror. From the very beginning the organisation has meted out the harshest, most horrifying sanctions against opponents of its project here. And the IS group has also forced locals to watch these punishments being implemented, making them even more frightened.
One local, Omar Khudair, was detained for several weeks in one of the IS group's prisons in Mosul. “The worst thing was when they took me to Al Khafsa and threatened to throw me in,” Khudair says, referring to the large cavern outside of the city that has been used as an impromptu burial ground for the locals the IS group executed. “They didn't though, they took me back to prison.”
Whether they're enjoying their city under the IS group or not doesn't matter to most locals – they cannot really leave either way. Mosul locals cannot leave unless they fulfil nigh on impossible conditions.
Samira Hassan, a pensioner, had to mortgage her house to the IS group so she could travel from Mosul to Baghdad for a period of 20 days and it took her three days to go through all the bureaucracy that was required before she was able to leave. “If I don't come back within that 20 days, the house will be confiscated,” she explains.
As it is, the only entrance and exit to Mosul is to the road leading to Syria – specifically Raqqa, the other major, operational city the IS group holds. Which is why the locals who want to leave believe the only way out is to Syria and then onto Turkey. But this too is a subject of discussion and debate inside Mosul a year after the IS group took control here. Even if they manage to get out, where would they go? What will happen to those who lived under the IS group, once the city is liberated? And perhaps most importantly, how long can they wait until things change – or will it be like this forever?
*Names of locals living in Mosul have been changed for their safety.