SHAFAQNA – A family of Arabs who fled their home in Mosul to escape the Islamic State has relayed tales of brutalities inflicted upon the city’s population by the occupiers.
Since July, the Al-Saraj family has lived safely in Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, but they stay in close communication with friends and family inside the extremist group’s so-called caliphate.
The picture they paint of life inside Mosul is grim.Speaking from their home last week, the family said that before ISIS’ June seizure of Mosul, all the city’s ethnic and religious communities—Christian, Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shia and Sunni—all lived in peace. The family’s composition reflects this.
Family patriarch MS is a 55-year-old retired army colonel and a Sunni. His wife, RS, comes from a Shiite family. Both agreed to speak for this story only if their full names were not used.
“It was paradise,” MS said of pre-American invasion life in Mosul.
But now, “the killings and cutting off of appendages have become routine,” added Saraj daughter SA.
MS said people in Mosul have come to see ISIS as an occupier due to its savagery, even though many initially welcomed the group and all non-Sunnis have now fled the city.
“There are many factions in Mosul,” MS said. “Maybe only around five percent of them now support ISIS.”
Repeating information texted to her from a friend in Mosul, SA said the severity of ISIS punishments inside the city is driving the population against the group.
“Yesterday they cut off the hands of four kids, ages 12, 11, 13 and 16,” her Mosul contact relayed to SA. “One of the kids stole a toy bird, another stole an electric cable.”
SA’s older brother Ibrahim echoed these tales, and on his smartphone showed a video of what appears to be a pre-teen boy being shot in the back of the head by an ISIS executioner.
In the video, the boy’s father pleads for his son’s life, but to no avail. According to Ibrahim, all the boy did was steal food, which given the shortages in the city is understandable.
“He stole something, he wanted to eat,” Ibrahim said.
The Saraj family said the banking system in Mosul is non-existent, as are salaries and electricity. The prices of necessities like water and cooking and heating gas have skyrocketed.
Mosul’s resentment of ISIS, MS said, is boiling over. He believes the group may only have 2,000 fighters inside the city. He estimates only about half of them come from Iraq, and the rest come from all over the world.
“Turks, Chechens, North Africa, China… they’re from everywhere,” he said. Given how few fighters the extremist group has to police a city of nearly two million, Ibrahim said he thinks the reason more of Mosul is not rising up against ISIS is that they have been kept in a perpetual state of terror through public executions and reprisals.
MS added that before ISIS took control of the city, central government and Kurdish forces “went house to house and took all the weapons” to prevent an uprising, but now the people have nothing to fight back with.
“People are like sheep now. They don’t have weapons, only knives,” Ibrahim said.
RS, an activist and educator who worked with women’s groups in the city, added that ISIS has been particularly bad for women.
“They cut off their hair,” RS said of women sentenced to death by ISIS. “Some are stoned, some are shot, and some are beheaded for adultery.”
“If the woman has a boyfriend, the punishment is stoning,” she added matter-of-factly. “If she has more than one boyfriend, she’ll be shot.”
They added that if a Sunni man was married to a Shia woman, like in the Saraj family, ISIS will force the man to divorce his wife.
Many families have chosen to take their girls out of schools for fear of them being sexually targeted by ISIS. They said ISIS fighters go to schools, pick out the most attractive girls and force them into marriages; non-Muslims are particularly singled out.
“For Yazidis, if a girl is under eight, nothing happens, but if she’s older than eight, they force her to have sex with the ISIS,” RS said.
Given these conditions, the family said many—like them—have chosen to abandon the city, but ISIS has done its best to halt those wishing to escape.
Families must give ISIS the deeds to their house or, car or make a deposit if they wish to leave Mosul. If they fail to return, ISIS will seize everything.
Many Mosul residents, as much as they hate ISIS, cannot bear to lose their property, and fear retribution against the family they might leave behind.
ISIS, according to the Saraj family via their contacts inside Mosul, has also begun prepping the city’s civilian population for use as human shields. Ibrahim said ISIS has shut down barbershops with the intent of forcing all men to grow long hair and beards. He said this is so if an assault on the city comes, the attackers will not be able to distinguish between the ISIS fighters and innocent bystanders.
Although they are now safe in Dohuk, MS and RS both said what has become particularly frustrating for them and their family is an assumption many Kurds have about how all Arabs support ISIS.
The family has been relatively lucky, and has its own apartment in a well-off Dohuk neighborhood, but they’re still treated with suspicion by the Kurds.
In Dohuk they have to register with the government twice a month, and are not allowed to go out after dark.
Like the Kurds, they hate ISIS, the Saraj family said, and their treatment inside Kurdish territory has added insult to injury. They long for the day ISIS is cleared from Mosul, and want the Kurds to believe them when they say Arabs are not the enemy.
“People are waiting for liberation,” MS said, “because life in Mosul is impossible.”