The streets of Mosul are covered with the traces of air raids. It appeared as though the collapsed buildings were trying to illustrate the varied aesthetics of the devastation. Some of the houses were transformed into a Laocoon group of rubble, ferroconcrete iron and wires, while some others were opened up along the lines of gaping wide cracks, or the roof was leaning gently deep down to the ground level, eliminating any difference between the inside and the outside. In this deconstructed space, cramped vehicle wreckages crammed into buildings once used as homes.
“Sixty people were killed when the assailant blew himself up with the car” – said the woman in the black scarf with the children crowding around her, dragging me back to reality. Indeed, the wreckage piercing into the wall was not a decorative object but the remains of a car that had been fully loaded with explosives and metal shards with the purpose of driving it into the residential building at full speed.
“The residents were the ones who escaped here from other parts of the city. The target was not these people themselves, but the two soldiers who were patrolling the street. But everyone else was also killed,” explained the inhabitants of the street interrupting each other.
“The attack happened on 6 November, after which we moved out from here and went to the refugee camp. We returned in January, only to find that everything that we had in the house had been taken. We don't know who robbed the buildings, whether it was Mosul inhabitants or ISIS. But we ended up with nothing left.”
Making order in the city of ruins
The Eastern part of Mosul, newly recaptured from the Islamic State, was much more of a war zone than a city in the traditional sense of the word. The level of destruction showed how desperate the war fought by the terrorist organisation was - being the second largest city of Iraq was not actually the reason why Mosul was so important for them, it was important because it was there that their leader, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate.
The atmosphere was not only defined by the destruction and desperation, but also rooted in the almost comical effort invested into the reconstruction. Rubbles were carried out from roofless rooms by men who then loaded them onto an ever growing heap of rubbles. Not far from there, fences were repaired only to divide the semi-collapsed buildings from the entirely collapsed ones.
It was not much dissimilar to a movie scene when a young boy appeared among the ruins, wearing a white shirt and a blue vest, his hair carefully combed, and with a school bag on his back. He was already sent to school by his parents.
Besides the hopelessness, what contributed to the depressing feeling was that the locals thought we were there to help. “We would need money for reconstruction.” “There is no water in the entire city, we pay very high prices for bottled water, when are they going to repair the water pipes?”
In my confusion, I could only mutter something like we journalists can help with informing the world about the hardships, but I felt how ridiculous my answer could sound in such a situation. We moved on.
A lunatic asylum of the size of a city
Deserted and buzzing parts follow each other in a hardly understandable system in Mosul. Our driver sped up when passing through unpopulated areas, but after the bloody events described in the first part I had to struggle to make him slow down at least in the living parts.
The city is full of sleeper cells, there could be an attack at any moment.
– he explained, while driving through the rubble covered streets.
The living streets were lined with hawkers on both sides. We hardly saw any food, the eateries and bakeries so typical of Arabic cities were all missing. Half of the hawkers were selling petrol, but there was significant scrambling for the water tanks, too.
My driver, otherwise also serving as a Peshmerga officer, decided that if there is no way he could dissuade me from making an interview, I should at least do it inside a closed area.
“Our life was like a prison” – the hawker summarised the two years he spent under ISIS domination. I only had the possibility to talk to him because he invited me inside his shop. “I was afraid for my wife the most, lest she should be taken away for something. She may not be wearing gloves in the street, or perhaps her ankles will show and I will never see her again. My son was arrested three times because he was smoking or because he was wearing tight clothes. He was taken away and beaten up.”
The man went on to tell me a long list of shocking rules of the Islamic State. Execution for mobile phones, whipping men if their ankles do not show from below the trousers, imprisonment and fine for shaving.
“It was like living in a lunatic asylum. People rather chose not to leave their homes. The streets were almost empty for two years”, he pointed outside.
If you are killed, you only die once, but here in Mosul, we die every day.
– said the shopkeeper with a surprisingly poetical tone. Then, with the same breath, he went on to talk about the difficult business environment.
“You could hardly make a living. Everything became very expensive, you could get goods from Syria, but people had no money. It was mostly the fighters who bought goods, they could afford it.”
“Syrians, Chechens, Moroccans, French, Germans, Filipinos. Fighters came from everywhere. They didn't speak Arabic, they used interpreters for shopping.”
“Were there no people from Mosul who joined the Islamic State?” “No, not really. I didn't know anyone like that”, he answered, looking aside. I saw this same discomfort on the face of a restaurant owner, who was sitting on a chair in front of his restaurant which was recently blown up.
The Jihadists are among us
“Chechens, Uyghurs, Kuwaitis, Italians, Russians – said the restaurant owner, listing which countries' jihadists visited his restaurant. – many came from Pakistan, too. Yes, there were a few Iraqis also, but they have already been reported and they were taken by the police”, he said quickly as an answer to the question whether local inhabitants also supported the organisation.
I had no time to ask about the details, because our driver started to push me towards the car. “It is not safe to spend a lot of time on the same spot,” and I was unable to decide whether he wanted to show off his importance as a military person or the situation was really so serious. “The Islamic State has informants who will report that there is a foreign journalist in the region, and then an assassin may turn up,” he said, already driving the jeep.
My report trip started to resemble a strict school trip in the sense that you had to beg for being allowed to get out of the car. We slowed down at a safe looking corner so that I could ask the man standing on the roadside about his experiences. “Life was terrible. They robbed your home, they beheaded you, they flogged you.
“There were some Iraqis among them from the nearby villages. There were none from Mosul, or I don't know,” he said, but then he unintentionally made himself caught out when I asked him about the atmosphere in the city. “People were sitting at home and they were not talking to anyone. You couldn't trust anyone. You say something which reaches the Islamic State and you get executed,” revealing that it was not uncommon to encounter ISIS supporters among the city's inhabitants either.
Our interview was terminated because of me this time. A machine gun started to rattle, a man in a white shirt pressed himself behind a car on the roadside, and I jumped into the jeep with no hesitation. While driving away, I saw soldiers firing upwards. Perhaps a home-made drone carrying grenades appeared in the sky.
Tougher than a horror movie
Grotesque it may be, it was precisely the extreme caution that lead us to the most dangerous part of our journey. My body guard type of a driver enquired from the militia standing on guard at the dusty crossroads where we could talk safely to soldiers who took part in the liberation.
The zone where, according to their information, we were supposed to find a mine clearing squad, was completely deserted. The neighbourhood was filled with vehicle wrecks, tarnished with oil and fraught with tension. My driver and my helper looked into a hangar and waved:
A bomb factory was operating here.
In the gloomy space, there were heaps of dismantled grenades. A car was parked in the back, perhaps prepared for explosion. Around my feet, there were wires, suspicious looking lamps and metal waste lying around everywhere. Seconds later, we were already in the car.
It was only at lunch when I learnt about the level of the fear of appearing in public. At first, I was unsuccessfully trying to make the owner of a kebab vendor talk, who used charcoal for preparing his merchandise. After my numerous attempts however, he signalled to me to follow him into his flat. On the carpet, we were surrounded by the family, they brought tea, and then as if a tap was turned open, stories began to pour in.
“What we saw was tougher than a horror movie.”
There was a football field near our home, and that was used for executions. We saw a large number of people being beheaded or thrown off the roof.
– the head of the family started with a heavy topic. His wife pointed at the boys watching us with eyes wide open. “The children used to go to a private school, they were good students. But then we didn't even let them leave the house for two years. They were not supposed to see all this.”
“Eventually, we decided it was better not to let our older girl leave the house either. Once she failed to cover her face in the street, and an ISIS person followed her home, and he said if he sees her like this one more time, he will take her and make her a slave.” The girl, who must be between 18 and 20, is grinning when she hears the words of her mother. She already dresses in a much more relaxed way. Rather than wearing all-black, she has put on a tiger spotted cloak and a green scarf.
“Our bigger son was flogged several times because he was selling cigarettes. Smoking was also banned.”
“Why didn't he give up illegally selling tobacco?” I asked naively.
“This is how he provided for his family. He used to work in construction, but under Daesh (the Arabic name of ISIS), there was no work. Now he lives in a refugee camp with his wife and his daughter.”
Why didn't you escape from this madness? Strangely enough, the city of Erbil is entirely peaceful, and is only 80 km away.
“At first, they let us leave the city. But we didn't find jobs in Erbil, we ran out of money and we didn't have a place to stay. We had to move back here,” he spreads his hands in helplessness.
The city which was waiting for the bombing
“And what did the terrorists say, why did they have these strict rules? How did they explain the ruthless war?” I asked, hoping that I may learn something from the locals about the apocalyptic cult of ISIS. The terrorist group is known to take literally everything that is written in the Islamic holy scriptures, including the one according to which the end of the world is near, the guardian troops of the faith will clash with the “Romans”, they will defeat them, but all this will not make a difference, because everyone will be perished, and only the faithful will reach a good ending.
On the spot however, it seemed that the jihadists placed a larger emphasis on terrorizing the inhabitants than on ideological teachings. Mosul inhabitants had no idea why all that cruelty was happening. “Because they turned mad”, said the man. “What else could it be, when 12-14-year-old children with weapons came up to me, calling me to account why I had shaved?!”
Other city dwellers gave me another strange explanation: “They are deliberately trying to denigrate Islam. So that the world may think that this is Islam.” Some think the madness is driven by a practical reason: “After they arrived in the city, ISIS released the inmates from the prisons, and gave arms into their hands.”
However, the apocalyptic way of thinking did make its way into the local way of thinking, too. Even if it was not the result of the teachings, but that of the misery that hey have experienced. The owner of the kebab restaurant concluded our conversation with these words:
“Eventually we were only sitting at home and were waiting for the American air strikes. We were listening and waiting for the rockets to start screeching. We were hoping that they will miss us.
Read the first half of the report, where the author gets into close contact with the fighting tactics of ISIS's sleeper cells.
We entered the secret tunnel of ISIS which was recently captured by the Iraq army.