Caught in the crossfire: Locals in Mosul run for cover, as Iraqi army forces clash with the extremist Islamic State group. (photo: توماس كوكس (جيتي))
As more of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul returns to the control of the Iraqi government, and the extremist group known as the Islamic State is pushed out, the world is starting to hear from those who managed to get out. Around 60 percent of the city is now free of the Islamic State, or IS, group. Those who left carried small bags and long stories.
“One Of The Soldiers Was Like Rambo!”
Ahmad al-Haj is a 55-year-old employee of a textile factory and up until recently, he has been living in the Zuhour neighbourhood in Mosul, where there had been a lot of fighting about three weeks ago. Now he and the seven members of his family are living in a small tent in the Khazar Camp for displaced people, east of Mosul.
One night there was particularly heavy fighting so we all gathered in just one room of our house. A few hours passed and we realized that the fighting had reached our alley. There were all sorts of gunfire and explosions and we were so frightened but at the same time, trying to prevent the kids from crying.
After the gunfire stopped, I went outside to see what had happened. I was actually very surprised to see many members of the counter-terrorism forces pointing their guns at me and shouting: lie down! Lie down!
I did so and at the same time, was begging them not to shoot me. I told them I was a civilian and that my family lives in this house.
My wife then came running out of the house as did the rest of the family and I think at that stage they started to believe me. They were trying to calm everyone down when we heard an explosion from the neighbour’s house. Glass shattered and everyone was shouting. We realized it was a grenade that had been thrown into our neighbour’s house by one of the IS fighters. That’s when the fighting started again and this continued until dawn. We ran back inside and hid under the staircase of our house.
We saw one of the IS fighters jump down onto the roof of the counter-terrorism troops’ vehicle and he was carrying explosives with him. He killed two of them. But the other soldiers didn’t panic and kept fighting. They were incredibly fierce. One of them was like Rambo. Then when the gunfire stopped, the shooting started.
One of the IS fighters was yelling out: Allahu Akbar [God is the greatest]. But the soldiers told the IS fighters they had only two choices: To surrender or die.
There were another few minutes of calm. Then there was a huge explosion. It felt like the house had fallen on top of our heads. We thought for sure we were all dead. But then soldiers entered our home. The staircase had protected us. Although it took us a while to realize it, we were actually all still alive.
“I Worried My Four-Year-Old Might Betray Me.”
NIQASH spoke to Iqbal Hussein, 30, who, as soon as she got out of Mosul, took off the full-face veil that the IS group had made all Mosul women wear and celebrated her family’s escape. Hussein is now in Baghdad with relatives.
We were living in a prison and we were afraid of everybody and everything. Because the IS group killed people for such ridiculous reasons, such as possession of a mobile phone. My four-year-old had noticed that I was always so careful to hide my phone and one day she said to me: If you don’t give me what I want, I am going to tell the IS guys about your phone. I laughed at the time. But then my uncle was killed because he had a mobile phone. So, in the end I took my daughter’s words seriously. I became really worried, that in her innocence, she might actually say something to someone from the IS and tell them about my phone, and then I would end up dead like my uncle.
Fear made me do things too. Like stop the children from watching cartoons. I thought if anybody heard them singing cartoon songs then people would suspect we had a television.
It was unbearable. So we decided that before the war reached us, we would try and escape. We packed a small bag and went to try and cross to the eastern side of the city in a small boat – all the bridges had been destroyed. The problem was that the IS group doesn’t allow civilians to cross to the other side because they want to use them as human shields to hinder the Iraqi army’s progress. But we lied and told them we had to visit relatives on the other side.
They took away our ID cards so we would have to return. But we were ready to sacrifice anything to be free. We had to pass through areas where there was a lot of heavy fighting but my husband and I and our four children walked through as quickly as we could, with our heads down, staying behind walls. Along the way, we were joined by several other families. One of the neighbourhoods we passed through was almost destroyed; we were walking on rubble and we kept passing dead bodies of IS fighters and of civilians. The whole time there were rockets and bullets flying. We were sure IS snipers were trying to get us.
It took about five long hours to get to safety. IS men stopped us three times but we managed to pass, by begging and by lying. One asked us to pay him money and another demanded the keys to our car so they could eventually booby trap it. At one stage I saw a boy – not older than 14 – give the men some keys. He said: Here are the keys to the motorcycle, I put it under the bridge. The boy was trembling with fear and cold.
It was so frightening but the reward has been freedom. Now I don’t have to hide under the stairs every time I hear a plane. We are finally out of the belly of the whale. We are free.
“I Took Revenge With My Music”
In 2012, NIQASH published a story about three Mosul locals who had started a band at Mosul University. One of the musicians was Amin Miqdad, who has remained in Mosul for the past two years despite the fact that his family fled to Baghdad after the IS group took control of the city. This was even though Miqdad knew only too well that the extremists had banned all music. Miqdad, now 27, arrived in Baghdad a week ago.
I insisted on staying and I decided to keep playing music. My closest friends would come to my house and play guitar and we would also compose lyrics. I organized a small recording studio inside my house and I made sure that nobody on the street could hear the music.
One day in June 2015, IS men raided my house and they took all of my instruments and my CDs. They threatened to whip me and to put me in prison. I thank God they did not because I know now that if they had, I would probably be dead.
I left my house straight away and moved to my uncle’s place in another part of the city. But I refused to surrender. I borrowed my uncle’s musical instruments and started to play music again, to get the sounds of bombs and guns out of my head.
A picture of the Mosul musicians from NIQASH's 2012 story.
One of the funny things that happened during the time was that a friend, who used to come to visit me all the time, ended up learning guitar too. He would come and see me every day because there was no work and no university and he was so bored. So he started to learn guitar!
I will never forget the day they came and took away my instruments. But I have decided to take revenge in my own way. I have composed 25 pieces of music and the moment I was able to, I posted these on YouTube and on other social media sites under the name, Yusur. I still have music in me.