Mohammed Suleiman* and his family had already decided that they would stay in their homes in the village of Tuloul Naser, around 35 kilometres south of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. “We decided not to leave regardless of what happened next,” Suleiman told NIQASH in a phone interview. “We knew the Iraqi army was getting very close. But in the last minute all our plans changed.”
The family heard their local mosque’s loudspeaker calling all the village men to gather in the village schoolyard. “So we went there quickly,” the father-of-five continued; he is keeping his voice low because he is in Mosul and does not want to be caught speaking to the media. “But we were very scared and we didn’t know what the man could possibly want from us. There were around 70 others from our village there when we got there, and three fighters from the Islamic State group.”
The extremist group known as the Islamic State has controlled nearby Mosul for just over two years and currently a range of anti-extremist forces are trying to push the group back out of the city. Suleiman says the fighters told them they were to leave the village immediately.
I will never forget how hard we tried to make sure the children didn’t see any of the dead.
“One of them pointed a gun at us and said that anybody who refuses to obey orders will be killed,” Suleiman recounts. “So we didn’t ask any questions.”
Suleiman and his neighbours then did as they were told, leaving the village on foot. They were accompanied on the road by members of the IS group and their families. “They were using us as a cover for their withdrawal to avoid being bombed,” Suleiman explains.
Before the fight for Mosul had even begun military analysts were already suggesting that the IS fighters would quietly, simply withdraw from some areas and try to hold others by fighting doggedly. That is what is happening too, as Suleiman and his family and neighbours were to find out.
“It was shocking,” he continues. “Those who had cars put their valuables in and left but most of us found ourselves in a convoy, of dozens, walking. Some of the people were crying. We didn’t know anything but we did know they were taking us to the road that led to Mosul.”
“We stopped a lot to let the children and the older people rest,” Suleiman says. “One time we stopped, we saw the dead bodies of the people that the IS group had clearly executed just a few hours previously, just lying by the side of the road. I will never forget how hard we tried to make sure the children didn’t see any of that. We got really scared at this stage. And everyone started to walk a lot faster in case the IS fighters were to try and kill us too.”
“We passed through several other villages and we saw similar groups to our own. We kept walking for two full days and slept out in the open. We thought we would die of hunger and fatigue,” Suleiman recalls.
“They were so tired when they arrived, and covered in dust,” says another source inside Mosul. “Their shoes and clothes were torn. Some cars drove to them and helped bring the villagers into the city.”
And Suleiman is not alone, nor is his village. The influx of residents who usually live outside Mosul into the extremist-held city has not stopped for the past ten days. Some of the locals coming into town are not being accompanied by IS fighters with guns. Instead they have come themselves because they had heard that the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias were nearby and they fear that they will be attacked by these forces, in revenge for what the IS group has done. This is even though there have been no major acts of retaliation recorded as yet.
Mosul's mayor, Hussein Ali Hajem, who is working from outside the city, confirms that the Islamic State, or IS, group has already forced the residents of around 35 villages south of the city to leave their homes, before the Iraqi army arrived there. He estimates that around 22,000 people have been forcibly displaced by the IS group.
And an Iraqi doctor who is travelling with the Iraqi army, who requested anonymity for security reasons, reports that, passing through the villages in the Ain al-Jaish area outside of Mosul, he saw almost no sign of human life. “Just dogs, cattle and chickens.”
Not all of the villagers who were forcibly displaced have ended up in Mosul. Some families managed to remain in the town of Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, which has since been overtaken by the Iraqi army. Those who had worse luck ended up in the IS-held town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul.
Hajem says they believe that around 2,000 villagers were taken to Tal Afar where they are likely to be used as human shields. After Mosul, this is the IS group’s most important stronghold in this area and fierce battles are expected there.
Just under two weeks after the fighting for Mosul and its surrounds had started, the commander of the joint military operation, Talib Shaghati, a lieutenant general with the Iraqi army, has said that its becoming clear that the biggest problem his troops face is civilians getting in the way.
The IS group has imported thousands of villagers from outside the city into Mosul. It has prevented most locals from leaving the city permanently too. The fighting in the city so far has involved intense street fighting, going from building to building – and most civilians have refused to leave their homes.
As one resident in the Karamah area told NIQASH by phone: “Leaving our house is not really a good answer because sooner or later, there will be fighting in other neighbourhoods in the city too. We want to stay put, in the hope that the city will be liberated and this hell will end.”
As for Suleiman and his family, he and his neighbours from Tuloul Naser are now camping out in government buildings and schools on the south side of Mosul. Hundreds of others are there with them, he told NIQASH.
Everyone there is pessimistic, Suleiman noted. “We are waiting for some heavy fighting,” he said. “And we think we might be forced to leave here again too. Death is following us, of that we are sure.”
*Names have been changed for security reasons.