Before I leave Mosul, I make sure to hide all of my pictures and the articles stored on my laptop, as well as my journalist’s ID card. The Sunni Muslim extremist group that has taken over the city considers journalists among its worst enemies.
As I leave, the streets that have been controlled by the extremist group, the Islamic State, since June 10, seem strangely quiet. Long queues of cars have disappeared now. But it’s not because fuel has become available. They disappeared because locals have realised that waiting for petrol is useless.
“The petrol stations have been closed for ten days,” is how the taxi driver who eventually picks us up to take us to the city of Erbil, inside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, explains the high price he will charge us.
The bus station where locals used to gather before they left for Erbil is almost empty now. There are only a few impatient drivers searching for passengers. The road between Erbil and Mosul has become a lot longer since the Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga, closed the main road with barriers made out of dirt following clashes with the Islamic State.
But there is a peripheral road and our car drives slowly down it – it’s going slowly because of the bad quality of petrol its using. Ever since the IS group decided to remove the border between Iraq and Syria in this area, unemployed men have been coming from Syria to sell low quality goods in Mosul and make a profit.
On this trip, it is the lucky passenger who has a residency permit for Erbil. This allows them to enter the city with little effort. However unlucky people – like me – have to wait for hours to try and get a card that allows us to enter the city.
I spend 12 hours at the main entrance of the Kalak checkpoint. The Iraqi Kurdish secret service officers, known as the Asayesh, are dealing with everyone harshly and nothing I can do or say helps. Just when I am about to give up hope, an officer approaches me and speaks in a more sympathetic way.
I show him my press credentials. But even then he won’t let me into the Iraqi Kurdish region. “We have a new policy,” he explains. “You won’t be able to get in unless you are accompanied by your family, no matter what your profession.”
I saw dozens of families entering the region; none of them plan to return home again in the near future.
Unlucky applicants have no choice but to go back to Mosul or they must search for shelter in the nearest camp for displaced persons. In this shelter, out in the open, there is no protection against the high summer temperatures, or the dust or the noise of babies crying. The sick and elderly are sleeping on the dirt and local and international photographers eagerly take their pictures.
Eventually I managed to enter Erbil although it was unofficially and with the help of a friend.
I made my way to a hotel where my basic needs were more than catered for – things we had not had in Mosul for weeks were available here and I just wished that I could have brought my family with me here.
A couple of days later and I am starting to feel more normal. I am reading the local papers, writing stories and I am in contact with editors and other reporters. I start to think about how I can plan my family’s future, how I can provide them with the comfort of an air conditioned room and find milk for my baby daughter.
I call my family almost every day as well as friends in Mosul. The news coming from inside the city isn’t good. There are bombardments continuously and most of the victims seem to be civilians. Health services are apparently running out of supplies. Eventually I am deprived of the luxury of being able to call them – the telecommunications company in Mosul cuts its services for good on July 4 at 11am.
The real danger seems to lie in the increased number of kidnappings that the IS group is carrying out. Corpses of kidnap victims are being found, blindfolded and shot. If IS fighters release any of those kidnapped, it is as if the skies had opened up to assist the victims. Two days ago a local photojournalist was released, which seemed like a miracle to me. These reports make me desperate to return to Mosul and get my family out.
I didn’t feel out of place in Erbil though. I met journalists every day, many of whom had left Mosul because they were afraid of being targeted by the IS group or because they needed to search for jobs. Some say that unemployment in Mosul must be as high as 90 percent by now.
I spoke to a professor from Mosul University at one stage. “If things continue as they are now I am going to have to go and sell vegetables – or do anything else I can – in order to provide for my family,” he told me.
I also met some of the staff who had been working at a satellite TV station in Mosul that has been taken over by the IS group. They came to Erbil because they no longer have jobs or income. Being with them was like being in a very black comedy.
“Why don’t we go back to Mosul and open our own TV station in cooperation with the militants,” one of them suggested sarcastically. “We can call it IS TV”.