Unlike most of the world and most of their fellow countrymen, the people of Mosul did not hear the news about the operation to push the Islamic State out of their city from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.
“We woke up to the sound of unusual explosions that continued until dawn,” says Um Ahmad*, a 52-year-old teacher who lives in the Hay al-Mithaq neighbourhood in the east of the city. “My husband told me these were the first shells of the battle to free the city and that was later confirmed by news reports.”
Although her family has been waiting for two years and four months for this news, it was greeted with a mixture of joy and fear: They are well aware there are likely to be street battles and other reports suggest that, far from running from Mosul as some had hoped, members of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group will try and defend the city. Several months ago Um Ahmad’s son was killed by the extremists on suspicion of being part of the anti-IS resistance in Mosul.
“I went and knocked on the doors of my neighbours so I could bring them the good news,” Um Ahmad told NIQASH in a phone interview. “We congratulated each other and there was happiness, the same way there is when there are feasts and other celebrations.”
What the city’s people know about the fighting so far has been well received. They were pleased to hear their Prime Minister say that only the Iraqi army and the federal police would be fighting in the city and this relieved some of their worries about what might happen if the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias tried to enter the city; in other cities where the IS group was present, the militias carried out revenge attacks.
The locals also report that many of the families of members of the IS group have moved out of the central city and are now living on the city outskirts, or in surrounding villages also under IS control, for fear of reprisals.
On the first day after fighting began, the IS group ran the city as normal, locals reported. And in fact that sense of normalcy still remains – markets are still open and traffic still moves through the town.
But it is clear things are different. Many people rushed to the stores and bought up supplies in anticipation of a siege that might continue for weeks; the city insiders known as Mosul Eye have reported on Twitter and Facebook that food prices are rising astronomically as a result.
And many locals have been preparing for this fight for some time.
For example, Haj Ibrahim al-Badrani* has installed a large tank in his garden in case there is a shortage of water and he has allocated one of the rooms of his house to be his family’s bomb shelter when fighting starts on the streets. The windows are boarded shut and food supplies are stored in a room close by.
Although people smugglers have been operating continuously, it has now become extremely hard to leave the city. Additionally, the city’s people have also heard that refugee camps will not accommodate them all so they would rather stay home.
The number of IS fighters on the streets has increased and there are heavily armed men on every main road. But IS members also know they are in danger out in the open and many have started to disguise themselves as ordinary citizens – this is the first time they have done so since they took control of the city in June 2014. Other reports suggest the fighters are using bicycles to avoid their vehicles being targeted by airstrikes.
There have been a number of recriminatory killings by the IS group. On the second day, three young men were hanged on the Hurriyah Bridge, one of the city’s large bridges. The men were accused of supplying information to the Iraqi security forces. The men were left hanging there for three days before their bodies were removed.
But there are many in Mosul who hope that, when the Iraqi forces arrive in the city, that locals will rise up against the IS group as happened in Houd village a few days ago.
The people of the village attacked us from behind and forced us to escape, leaving behind a number of dead, one of the IS fighters who was injured in Houd and had to return to Mosul to be treated in hospital there, told a relative. Word of this got around.
For the people of Mosul that NIQASH spoke to, there is no doubt that the IS group’s presence in Mosul must end soon. Most of them say they are just all wondering: Where are the soldiers? When do they arrive? The voices of the militant preachers are becoming hoarse as they continue to repeat prayers in the mosques, asking God to grant them victory and “defeat the infidels”.
Locals are obliged to say “amen” at the end of these prayers or face punishment. But in typical Iraqi style, some of them have started saying a similar sounding word - “thamaneen”, eighty, in English – instead of amen after the prayers. It’s funny and it’s a sign of disrespect for the IS group’s prayers. Most of all, though it is a small and significant gesture of resistance, and possibly even hope.
*Names of individuals still inside Mosul have been changed for security reasons.