When the morality police belonging to the extremist group known as the Islamic State arrested him in Mosul, Sadoun didn't know what to expect. He thought he might be flogged for his crime of selling cigarettes, fined, imprisoned or, worst of all, put to death. But none of this happened. Instead after spending three weeks of November in a prison in the northern city controlled by the Islamic State, or IS, group, Sadoun was told to prepare to go to a graveyard.
But this was not because his own demise was being planned. “The next day they blindfolded us and put us in a car which drove for a short time,” Sadoun, who is in his 20s, tells NIQASH. “We found ourselves in a large graveyard and I heard from the other prisoners who thought they recognised it, that we were in a graveyard in the west of the city. There were 12 of us and one of the IS fighters gave me a shovel and told me: 'There are 50 graves here. You should go in and destroy them. We don't want to see any trace of these graves'.”
Apparently this attempt to rid the cemeteries in Mosul of their graves was part of a new campaign instituted by the IS group to “remove all traces of polytheism” in the city. “The militants want to ban the gravestones and the tombs because they are a way of venerating the dead,” explains Mohammed Abdul-Wahab al-Shama, a religious scholar and cleric who was also the spokesperson for Mosul's Nabi Younis mosque, which the extremist group destroyed last year. “They want to level all the graves so that the people are not distracted in any way from worshipping God. These people are sick,” says al-Shama, who fled Mosul and now lives in nearby Dohuk. “They are distorting Islam in a terrible way.”
Another Mosul local says he regularly passes the Al-Islah Al-Zirai cemetery in the west of the city. “There is a full scale war against the graveyards in Mosul. I have seen many men in here at all hours of the day and night. And in the areas where I saw them, the land was levelled. Men were demolishing graves and headstones.”
Cemeteries in Wadi Ukab, also in the west, and al-Karamah, in the east of the city, have also been vandalised, says Amer al-Jumaili, a journalist from Mosul who is now living in Baghdad. He knows this because he has heard that the IS group forced a group of prisoners to level gravestones as a punishment. The IS group's prisoners include locals who had been caught smoking or selling cigarettes, those who had not grown their beards properly and who had not observed prayers according to the extremists' rules.
“But one of the strangest penalties from IS yet,” al-Jumaili wrote on his Facebook page, “is being asked to level 40 graves each.”
Another local man, Abu Ahmad al-Badrani, reports that prisoners were brought all the way to a village called Jurun, south of the city. The IS fighters told the prisoners to level graves on a small hill and told the people in the town that if they wanted to bury someone, they shouldn't put a headstone on the graves and that the earth on the grave should be kept level. Al-Badrani told NIQASH that he'd heard that the IS fighters and their detainees were now heading to other nearby villages to do the same thing there.
And Khaer al-Akidi says he went to visit one of the central Mosul graveyards where his grandfathers and uncles were buried. Two weeks after this particular exercise began he says he had no idea where his relatives had been buried. “I used to know all of the graves because of the headstones,” al-Akidi told NIQASH. “Now I can't find any of them. I only thank God that they kept the cemetery’s external fence standing because at least this way I know where the cemetery was.”
In fact this campaign by the IS group to get rid of any other symbols of any other way of worshipping is nothing new. It began over a year ago when the extremists took control of the city and almost immediately demolished an important antique site known as the Qabr al-Bint tomb. This has only continued and the campaign seems to be becoming more and more detailed as the extremists continue to seek targets for their ire.
Sadoun, who was arrested by the IS group for smoking, says he was forced to demolish 100 graves as his punishment. He explains that somebody caught selling cigarettes is supposed to level more graves than somebody who was just caught smoking. As for what he has had to do, Sadoun says he has no real regrets. Like everyone else in Mosul, his only concern these days is to survive. The issue of the dead and buried and their unmarked graves is of no great consequence to him or anyone else in Mosul at the moment.