Two hundred meters from the eastern entrance to Mosul, the Iraqi Kurdish taxi driver stopped the car and told us to get out. He had brought us all the way from Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to the outskirts of Mosul, the nearby city that was taken over by Sunni Muslim extremists last week.
“As I already told you, my mission ends here,” he said. “I won’t go one more centimetre.”
But my mission – and that of my fellow passengers - would not end here. My travelling companions were a doctor and a student, both of whom wanted to see their families in Mosul. My mission was one born out of curiosity – I am familiar with Mosul and I wanted to see what was going on there.
The road ahead of us was open and we were quickly able to find a taxi that would take us into the city. We were all shocked to see how things had changed.
The first checkpoint was manned by gunmen and men with masks on. Above them was a big sign on which was written: “The Wilaya of Ninawa welcomes you”. [Editor’s note: Wilaya is an Arabic word for a provincial division and stems from the word, wali, which means caretaker or custodian.]
The checkpoint scared us all but the driver, looking at our faces, told us not to be afraid. “Don’t worry, they don’t stand in anyone’s way,” he reassured us.
After going through the checkpoint we began to see the former premises of the Iraqi government security forces – these were destroyed or burned out, there were wrecked military vehicles along the sides of the roads and the uniforms that soldiers had cast off as they fled the city, still lay on the ground.
Our driver didn’t seem to mind this scene. “The conditions in the city today are similar to those before 2003,” he said. “All the roads are open.”
Previous to the retreat of the Iraqi army, a lot of the roads in Mosul had been blocked. As many locals have said, it was like living on a military base. But those groups who took over the city, including ISIS, have re-opened most of them. People were happy about this.
The doctor then asked our driver about basic services like water and electricity and the availability of fuel. “God will take care of us,” the driver replied.
Once in the city proper, we saw a lot of gunmen moving around in an organized way, driving SUVs with black flags on them.
According to one local man I met, Ahmed, who now works as a driver for one of the leaders of the insurgent groups, the whole area has been divided into sections and each section is headed by an emir, or leader, who gets orders directly from the head of the wilaya, via his assistants.
Ahmed is 20 years old and he first met his boss in an Iraqi prison. A year after he was released from prison, he joined the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; he was sent to do intensive military training in the desert.
Ahmed then started talking enthusiastically to a group of young men who have just joined the organization. “Your warrior brothers are right now fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad,” he told them. “I swear to God that we are going to open up all the Iraqi cities and we will establish an Islamic state.”
The young men cheered and chanted back at him: “Long live the Islamic state”.
I found some accommodation with friends and I decided that one day was not long enough to really see how a city of over a million people lives in these conditions. Given what seemed to be a stable security situation, I decided to stay a little longer.
Mosul’s people still seem reluctant to live as they normally do. Everyone is cautious. A group of people I know arranged to meet in the same café they normally do; it was the first time they had all met up since the city was taken over by the extremists.
Although everyone likes football, nobody was talking about the World Cup in Brazil. It was clear that everyone had the same thing on their minds: The city, its unpredictable future and how they would find safe places for their families. They all know things cannot remain the same in Mosul after what has happened here and their conversation was carried on in whispers.
“Let’s smoke a shisha [water pipe] because this may be the last time we can,” one of the friends said. He had heard that ISIS would ban shisha smoking and cigarettes as well as many other things.
I wanted to meet as many people as possible. And I tried to meet the foreigners I heard were fighting with ISIS in Mosul but I couldn’t find any; someone told me they had all left to fight in other areas of Iraq and that they had put local militias in charge of the city.
According to one active member of these militias, who is also a member of the outlawed Baath party, ISIS is still the most powerful authority in Ninawa and the power and presence of other militia groups is limited.
“There is absolutely no doubt that ISIS opposes any activity that goes on, that is not under their banner,” this man told me. “ISIS had also stressed that they didn’t want civilians carrying guns around. They’re afraid that the people may eventually revolt against them,” he said.
This Baath party member wasn’t a big fan of ISIS- he said that they had betrayed the agreement his party had reached with them, when they refused to allow them to nominate one of their senior members, a former army officer, to be part of the city council. “We will wait until after Baghdad’s future is determined,” he added ominously.
Another thing I wanted to do was find out what had happened to the Christians in Mosul. I had met some of them in Erbil after they fled the area for Iraqi Kurdistan. [Editor's note: The nearby Ninawa Plain is one of Iraq’s last major enclaves for Assyrian Christians.]
I passed the Roman Catholic church, built by Dominican friars, and saw a number of armed men in position near the church – they claimed responsibility for burning the church. But I was also slightly surprised to see three nuns, in their habits, going shopping.
Mosul’s Saa neighbourhood is the city’s Christian quarter but those who live there say that many families have now left and that there are only a few Christians left in Saa.
Not far from the church is the Omar al-Aswad mosque in the Farouq neighbourhood. While I was standing there, a large number of security officers and policemen came and went: They were repenting for their past jobs thanks to a general amnesty put in place by ISIS.
A former policeman, Watheq, was one of these. He handed over his gun and read a statement of repentance. Now he no longer needs to fear ISIS’ vengeance, he explained. Hundreds of locals who were in the police or military have done the same thing.
I asked Watheq how he was going to provide for his family of five now. “I am not the only one with this problem,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in Mosul who have no salaries and no financial resources to support their families.”
Despite the new city administrators’ best efforts, life in Mosul is paralysed. Public institutions are closed and service –related departments and health centres don’t know how long they can keep going. Employees at these places don’t know if they are going to be paid by the government in Baghdad or whether ISIS will pay them out of the billions the group is thought to have in its own coffers.
As services have started to deteriorate in the city, some of the locals here, who had celebrated the new situation with ISIS as a sort of liberation, have started to have regrets. To get 20 litres of fuel they have to stand in a queue for literally hours and the price has tripled.
The national grid is only supplying a maximum of two hours of electricity per day and the owners of private generators, which are now used a lot to power the city, say they will soon run out of fuel. There is no Internet service in the city at all.
Although many people have returned to the city there are still a lot of empty houses. In the markets and commercial centres, business seems to be very slow.
While I was walking around, I also saw an armoured car punctured with many bullet holes. More than one person told me that this was the car that had belonged to the Turkish consulate. The consul’s party was last seen on the western side of the city but after that it had disappeared – the militants always move their hostages around and now nobody knows where he is.
It is quiet here but the level of anxiety is high and seems to be rising. Nobody knows how long things will stay this way. Yesterday the militants destroyed one of the local religious sites, the Qabr al-Bint, because they claim it is against the teachings of Islam. There are concerns that the militants will destroy other important statues and tombs, such as, perhaps the tomb of the Prophet Yunis (Jonah).
In fact, the city hasn’t really been this calm in years. It is the calm before the storm, many people say.