Many Iraqis wonder why anyone would stay in the northern city of Mosul, living under the control of the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The extremists base their ideology on their own version of Sunni Islam and this involves meting out brutal and arcane punishments to locals who do not agree with their self-made religious views.
And the reason that many people stay in Mosul is because it is so hard to get out, says Hassan Hafouzi*, who recently managed to get out of the city. He told his story of escape to NIQASH two days after he reached the relative safety of Istanbul, Turkey.
Hafouzi first decided that he and his family – his wife and three children – had to leave Mosul around five months ago. However the actual attempt was postponed several times because of the dangers involved and the high possibility that the family would be discovered trying to leave, and be punished by the Islamic State, or IS, group.
One of the most dangerous ways to get out of the city is by using people smugglers. These locals charge between US$800 and US$900 to help people get out of the Islamic State-controlled areas. And in the end, this seemed to be the only way, Hafouzi explains. “Either we escape from this hell or we die trying,” the former employee of the education ministry told NIQASH; the family ended up paying around US$5,000 altogether to the people smugglers.
Hafouzi arranged to meet up with a driver he trusted and they agreed that he and his family would meet the man in the Hadar district, around 80 kilometres south of the city.
People can only leave Mosul if they get a report from a medical commission - made up, not of doctors, but of Islamic State members.
“I drove my family there in my brother’s car and I was so scared the whole way,” Hafouzi says. “When we reached the notorious al-Fath al-Mubin checkpoint, I almost panicked.”
At the time Hafouzi says he was thinking of a local woman, known only as Umm Ashraf and her son. They were trying to escape Mosul without getting permissions from the city's current rulers.
In March 2015, the Islamic State group decided to prevent locals from leaving the city without prior permission. People could only leave if they got a report from a medical commission made up of IS members that said they needed special treatment elsewhere. They could leave if they wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, or if they had to conduct some official transaction with ministries in Baghdad – for instance,finalizing one's pension – or if they were doing business within the borders of the so-called Islamic State.
Additionally anybody that wanted to leave Mosul needed to either mortgage his home or his vehicle, valued at not less than US$20,000, with the IS group official responsible for such transactions. A person living in Mosul also had to act as a guarantor for the individual who wanted to leave the city. If the local who left didn't return within a month, the property would be confiscated and the guarantor would be sent to jail.
Umm Ashraf and her son tried to circumvent these rules, Hafouzi explains. They were kidnapped at the al-Fath al-Mubin checkpoint, on the western edge of the city, and two days later their bodies turned up in the Mosul morgue.
Hafouzi also thought about another friend of his in Mosul who didn't make it. He and his wife were arrested at this same checkpoint and the couple were imprisoned. They were only released after they agreed to hand all of their property in Mosul over to the IS group.
Thankfully Hafouzi didn't panic. He says that he told the IS fighters manning the checkpoint that he was going to his village in the Hadar district.
“We passed five further checkpoints and then we found the driver in the agreed place. He then hid us in a truck that is usually used by farmers,” Hafouzi continues. The family had been told not to wear clothes that made it look as though they were travelling and not to carry too many bags. The driver checked they had followed these instructions and then he announced they were ready to leave.
“Our driver knew the road very well and he avoided a lot of the checkpoints. We then arrived in the Biaj district, which is known to be an IS stronghold,” Hafouzi continues – Biaj is about 110 kilometres west of Mosul. “We spent 10 hours travelling there. The trip would normally only take about two hours.”
The woman and her son were arrested on the western edge of Mosul. Two days later their bodies were in the morgue.
Hafouzi says that as they passed through Tal Afar, a city west of Mosul, he was particularly frightened and a little shocked. It is also known as a base for the IS group, with many supporters living there. “I was shocked,” Hafouzi says. “It seemed to be much stronger than Mosul, like the peak of the IS group's power.”
There are many reasons why people like Hafouzi would try and leave Mosul. A lot of those who have decided they must escape or die trying include former police and army officers, politicians who stood for election, journalists and doctors. They know that the IS group will come up with any excuse to punish or kill them. For example, Umm Ashraf was an employee of the local electoral commission and her son had worked as a police officer.
Later in the journey, Hafouzi and his family were handed from the Iraqi people smuggler to a Syrian business partner and the group eventually ended up in Raqqa, the Syrian “capital city” for the IS group.
Having managed to get through all the IS checkpoints by answering any questions asked in an acceptable way, the family were then taken to a house where three other families were also staying. Hafouzi paid the people smugglers US$100 for the two nights they spent in the house.
“Then at night we left for the Turkish border,” Hafouzi describes the most dangerous part of his family’s journey. “There were 25 of us and we had to drive through very frightening areas where there was actual fighting going on.”
“The smuggler told us that he could guarantee us safe passage if we all paid him another US$100,” Hafouzi says. “We had no choice but to do this.”
“The headlights showed us destruction and burned out buildings. The people smuggler then dropped us at a point he said was nearest to Turkey. We had to walk for more than an hour. It was very dark, we couldn't see much and we had to carry the children,” Hafouzi adds.
This group were lucky. That night they crossed the border. And Hafouzi and his family are now planning to try and stay in Turkey. However, as Hafouzi says wistfully, one day he would like to return to his home in Mosul - once the IS group have been driven out.
*Hassan Hafouzi is not his real name; his name has been changed for security reasons, so as not to endanger those still in Mosul.