Shaima Jamal* is trying to block out the memories of the year she spent in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, living under the control of the extremist group known as the Islamic State. When the extremist group took over the city in the middle of last year, Jamal was there and when she talks about the city today, her voice betrays her sorrow. She is sad about the destruction of her city and her home and sad for the people still living there. They are waiting for some kind of help, any kind of rescue, she says, whether that is from Iraq or from the international community.
Over several Skype conversations, Jamal, who is now in Ankara, told NIQASH her story of hiding, then escape from Mosul.
Mosul didn't fall to the IS group on June 10 last year, the way everybody thinks it did, she says. Mosul was occupied a long time ago, says the journalist who worked for both the Communications Department belonging to the provincial council and also as an editor at a local satellite TV channel, Sama Al Mosul. In her jobs she would hear about bombings, assassinations and blackmail by the IS group on a daily basis, Jamal says. The losers were the people of Mosul and the Iraqi security forces failed utterly to protect them.
“It was happening as long ago as 2006,” Jamal explains. “Even provincial government offices were blackmailed by the extremists, who would take a slice of project money and off other contracts.”
On June 5 last year, shortly before the IS group officially took control of the whole city, Jamal says there was a huge sandstorm, the likes of which she had never seen before. You couldn't see beyond several meters and on that day IS fighters infiltrated the western neighbourhoods of Mosul. Jamal was working at the television station at the time and she and her colleagues were told to leave the office. Iraqi security forces closed bridges into the city and imposed a curfew on vehicles.
At first Jamal thought it was yet another of the security lapses that regularly impact Mosul and that things would soon go back to normal But in fact that was her last day working at the television station.
The next day Jamal says she got her first glimpse of the IS militants. Looking out of her window in her neighbourhood in Mosul's west she saw masked men driving cars down the road; all of them had guns and long hair and beards.
“After that Mosul was like a war zone,” she recalls. “All of the military checkpoints in our neighbourhood and in other neighbourhoods were smashed up and the security forces vanished altogether.”
During the first few days of the extremist organisation's takeover of the city, they sent out messages to assure local journalists that they would be safe. However most of the journalists Jamal knew left the city as soon as they could, heading either into nearby Iraqi Kurdistan or to Baghdad. Tens of thousands of other locals joined them. Jamal remained in the city but day by day, her fears worsened – she heard that the IS group were arresting journalists and also that three of her colleagues at Sama Al Mosul had been kidnapped and killed.
Jamal stayed in hiding, moving between her own home and the homes of relatives, changing location every month or two, while her mother spread a rumour that she had gone to Erbil. Only her closest family members knew she was trapped in Mosul.
Jamal says the IS group has taken the city back centuries. Women have been banned from working with men and cannot leave the house without a mahram, or male member of their family as a chaperone. They shut down art galleries, theatres, cinemas, the local courts and colleges of law and arts. They also ordered all women to wear the face-covering niqab, a long gown and veil which traditionally sees every part of the body covered except the eyes.
But Jamal talks about this rule with a smile because it was the niqab that allowed her to move disguised from house to house and it also helped her escape the city, a year after the IS group took over.
She finally decided to leave after the IS group arrested 11 more employees from Sama Al Mosul; to this day, the fate of four of those colleagues remains unknown. Her mother persuaded her to leave and managed to pay for false identification in the name of a relative.
Jamal pauses for a moment, blinking back tears, visible even over Skype. She has two sons but she had to leave them and her husband behind. Her husband didn't feel that the children should run the risk of travelling along the people smuggling routes and risking their lives.
When Jamal left Mosul, she did it in the company of five other women, all of whom paid a people smuggler US$900 each to get to Turkey. Each one of the women had a medical certificate saying that they needed specialist treatment they could not get in Mosul. This is one of the only ways locals can leave the city and getting the medical certificates is not easy.
A driver was to take them from the city on July 27, 2015. However at the last minute the plans changed and they left at dawn the following day instead, and from a different place inside the city. They were not to bring any luggage with them. The driver – a bearded man – arrived on time in a smaller car. In the city centre he exchanged this car for a van and he also got a gun and changed his clothes, putting on the long shirt and baggy pants that locals know as the “Afghan look”, so called because often fighters from the Afghan Taliban group wear clothes like this. It was only then that the five women realised their people smuggler was a member of the IS group.
The van drove for hours on unpaved roads and seemed to avoid all checkpoints except two. At these, the driver told those manning the checkpoints that the women were his relatives and he was taking them to a district near the Syrian border. Closer to the border, the women were moved onto a pick up truck. Again the truck drove for hours on unpaved roads until they transferred into another vehicle driven by two more bearded men, who were to take them to Raqqa.
“When a fighter at a checkpoint asked me my name, I was so frightened I almost forgot what the new identity card said,” Jamal recalls.
The other women she was with seemed to feel the same way. She only saw one of their faces and this was by chance; a woman in her 50s who was trying to get to her daughter, who was already in Turkey. She never found out anything much more about the others. During the journey the only thing she saw was their scared eyes under the veil. They only saw the same aspect of her.
By midnight on Saturday Jamal's party had reached a guest house near Raqqa, in the countryside. They stayed there for two days and came to realise that many other people fleeing the area were doing the same thing; everyone was involved with a large network of smugglers that definitely included IS fighters themselves.
On the third day a young Syrian man took them by car to Aleppo. Along the way, Jamal says she saw Syrian Kurdish fighters, as well as fighters from other militias she didn't recognise, and scarred towns that had been almost razed by the fighting. “I also saw the bodies of three young Syrians by the side of the road,” Jamal says. “Our driver said they had been killed by the IS and left there as an example.”
At one stage they were stopped at a checkpoint and the fighters there checked their names and identification cards on a computer. Some of these fighters were blonde, Jamal noted, and not all of them were Arabs. When the group finally reached the Turkish-Syrian border there were further problems. The Turkish military wouldn't let them pass and sent them back to Aleppo. “Then the driver wanted another US$150 each to take us to another border area,” she says.
Driving until after midnight, the group eventually reached a Syrian village called Kherbet al-Jawz on the border with Turkey. From there they were to complete the journey by foot, helped by two Syrian guides, following a rugged path in the mountains.
“The two guides were constantly urging us to hurry, so we could cross the Turkish border before dawn, “ Jamal says. “Otherwise there was a danger of being caught or killed by the Turkish military.”
Along the way Jamal says she lost her shoes in the dark, ran into barbed wire , cut her knee badly and fell several times. At one stage she didn't want to get up any more. But the guides said they would leave her behind if she didn't keep moving.
“I was angry and sad and frightened all at the same time,” Jamal explains. “I was filled with longing to see my children. It tore at my spirit.”
Feeling hysterical, Jamal says she remembers being surprised when she was told she had made it to the Turkish side of the border. At that stage she threw off the niqab and began crying, her head in another woman's lap. “At that stage I do remember being really happy I didn't put my children through this,” she remembers.
The two guides were shocked to see what she was wearing underneath: a shirt and trousers and she also has a short, modern hair style. “One of them asked me for more money because he thought I might be a Yazidi captive running away from the IS group,” she adds. But Jamal then recited some verses from the Koran to prove she was a Muslim too.
Just before dawn, the group got into yet another car, this time a modern Hyundai driven by another young Syrian. For US$50 each he took them to the bus station in the nearby Turkish city of Antioch. “When we got to the bus station I just wanted to run and hug all the people I could see,” Jamal says. “Just to do anything to express my joy. I felt like I had survived certain death.”
Today Jamal is living in Ankara, looking for a job with a television station there. In the meantime she says she spends a lot of her spare time just walking around the streets of the Turkish city. It is to make up for the year of confinement and hiding in Mosul, she says. And it is because, as she puts it, having escaped death, she feels as though she has suddenly found a new lease of life and that she must live every minute or every day more fully than ever before.
*Names in this story have been changed to protect family and friends still living in areas under the control of the Islamic State.