Life under ISIS: Four stories of terror endured

When ISIS arrived in Mosul, they were seen as liberators. Then the violence began. Here are stories from people who survived ISIS rule.

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Fifty-two-year-old Hadia Ghannam’s (a pseudonym) ability to adapt helped her through the horror of Islamic State rule. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

Fifty-two-year-old Hadia Ghannam's (a pseudonym) ability to adapt helped her through the horror of Islamic State rule. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)
Fifty-two-year-old Hadia Ghannam’s (a pseudonym) ability to adapt helped her through the horror of Islamic State rule. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

For the past three weeks, Maclean’s has been touring towns, villages and refugee camps near the frontlines of the Mosul offensive, collecting dozens of stories about what life was like under the rule of Islamic State militants.

Every one of the people interviewed admitted that Islamic State’s arrival in Mosul was welcomed at first. They were seen as liberators from the brutality of the Iraqi army. Some found ways to profit under the new regime. Others attempted to remain out of sight, for fear their ties to the Iraqi government would mark them as enemies.

But as ISIS’s brutality was exposed, many residents felt lost and were left questioning their faith. As the Iraqi army began its advance into eastern Mosul last month, hatred of the group, which has used civilians as human shields, has deepened.

The stories that follow offer a glimpse into a world that will take months, if not years, to fully comprehend. The details and facts of their stories were confirmed by speaking with dozens of other civilians. Their names have been changed in all cases but the one in which the subject agreed to have his face photographed unobscured. Most civilians still have family members trapped in ISIS-held parts of Mosul. Many also believe militants have slipped into refugee camps, forming sleeper cells ready to target their perceived enemies. They still fear for their lives.

MORE: The horrors on the frontlines of the war for Mosul

Hadia Ghannam

Long before Islamic State came into being, 52-year-old Hadia Ghannam lived in a world where anything was possible. In early 1980s Baghdad, she had been a promising high school student from a moderately religious middle-class family who enjoyed a night out with friends, smoked occasionally, and wore short skirts. She was a rule-breaker by nature. In the secular milieu of the Iraqi capital she thrived.

Everything changed in 1988. As the Iran-Iraq war came to a close, thousands of soldiers, traumatized by the brutality of its trench warfare, came home. One of those was Ghannam’s cousin in Mosul, a 28-year-old ne’er-do-well who had dropped out of high school and had led an aimless life until the war gave him a purpose.

“I was 24 when my father told me I would be marrying my cousin and moving to Mosul,” Ghannam says. “It was a shock to me. I was working as a secretary in a government office and I loved my independence, but being 24 and unmarried was unacceptable to my father. And I wasn’t the prettiest girl, so there were not many other suitors to choose from. I had no choice.”

Moving to Mosul was a culture shock, Ghannam says. Unlike Baghdad, it was still a conservative backwater. Immediately, she was forced to cover up, abandoning her stylish dresses in Baghdad for the loose, body-length black gowns and headscarves that were Mosul’s norm.

She poured her energy into being a good wife and, eventually, a good mother. But her husband could not hold down a job; his mind had been broken by his wartime experiences. The family was barely getting by on his meagre veteran’s pension, so Ghannam took on the role of breadwinner, securing another secretarial position at the Ministry of Education in Mosul. She kept the family afloat, sewing dresses for her two daughters in her spare time and helping her son with his schoolwork.

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Her second transformation came in the summer of 2014 when the black-clad militants of ISIS overran the city. Unlike her husband, who celebrated their arrival, Ghannam knew immediately life was about to take a turn for the worse. Her mothering instincts kicked in again. She gathered up her children and grandchildren, including her pregnant daughter, and retreated into the safety of her home. Within days, she had added a face veil and black gloves to her sartorial repertoire.

“It felt like the entire world had died. It felt like living in a coffin inside a prison where Daesh were the guards,” she recalls, using the derogatory Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Every time I went out into the streets, I feared for my life. Daesh would post new rules every week in the market so you could never be sure what to expect. One day, talking to a male shopkeeper was okay; the next you had to ask your male escort, a family member, to do it for you.”

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“I was caught once without socks. My pregnant daughter was sick so I had rushed out to buy her some medicine and forgot to put them on. Someone from Daesh saw my naked ankles and shouted at me, ‘Why aren’t you covering up!’ I told him my daughter was sick and I was so worried that I forgot. He said the next time he caught me, he would whip my hands.”

When the Iraqi government cut off the salaries to government employees living under Islamic State rule, the situation turned desperate. Ghannam was forced to sell her belongings to support her family. By then, her eldest daughter’s husband—an Iraqi police officer—had been executed. ISIS fighters had arrived at their door one morning and taken him away. For weeks, the family was told he was with them, learning the Quran as penance. It was only a month and a half after his arrest, when Ghannam’s son combed through Mosul’s morgues, that he stumbled on the bullet-riddled body.

Even now, in the relative safety of a camp for the displaced, Ghannam can’t erase the memories of what she has endured. She smokes incessantly and holds her grandchildren close to her, as if at any moment one the militants could walk into her tent. But escaping has also brought some of her teenage defiance back, she says, lighting another in a long string of cigarettes.

“I never quit smoking, even when I was in Mosul. Smoking reminds me that these criminals who call themselves Muslims could not take everything from me. I will never quit.”

Ibrahim al Mosuli (a pseudonym), 38, a highschool teacher from the al Samah neighbourhood of Mosul. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)
Ibrahim al Mosuli (a pseudonym), 38, a highschool teacher from the al Samah neighbourhood of Mosul. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

Ibrahim al Mosuli

If there is anything remarkable about his life, says Ibrahim al Mosuli, it is that he survived Islamic State. “Believe me, there is nothing special about me,” says the 38-year-old high school teacher. “I did what so many other people in Mosul did. We had to come together. Those of us who wanted to resist what Daesh was doing to our city, to our culture and our religion, we had to support each other,” he adds.

The support came in many forms: small acts of kindness for the worst afflicted by the collapse of Mosul’s economy, shared dinners in private homes where women could emerge from their prisons and feel human again, solidarity in the face of the near daily disappearances of loved ones. Mosuli participated in all of these.

The small corner shop he opened after his government salary was cut off collapsed because he could not bring himself to charge money to so many of his destitute customers. He regularly accompanied his aging neighbour’s wife to the market, pretending to be her son, and shielded her from the corpses that every so often turned up hanging from lampposts. He helped another neighbour locate her dead son, executed for the sin of possessing a mobile phone, and assisted in his burial.

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Throughout it all, he feared for his life. As a man of fighting age who had been a government employee, even in an innocuous teaching role, he dreaded being caught breaking any of Islamic State’s draconian rules. Every morning he walked to his tiny hole-in-the-wall shop and wondered if today would be the day. Islamic State fighters often came to buy from him—they were the only ones with money— and he made sure to overcharge them so he could continue to give away free supplies to his neighbours. Each time he faced them, he wondered if they could catch a glimpse of the hatred burning in his eyes. Each time he smiled and took their money. But it was not enough to save his business.

Mosuli admits things didn’t start out this way. Like so many others in Mosul who had suffered the Iraqi army’s abuses, he was hopeful when the Sunni militants arrived in the city. “We thought they were Sunnis who had come to help their fellow Sunnis,” he says. “But they ended up killing Sunnis as well.”

In the process, they killed the love he and many others had for Islam, he adds. It’s this death that hurts him most.

“They made Islam such a hard thing,” he says. Many people stopped going to the mosque to pray because they did not want to be with Daesh. I would close my shop and go home. The mosque used to be a place where we gathered to meet friends. You could escape the heat and the crowds and talk for hours there. The mosque used to be where we held celebrations; it was a lively place full of laughter. But under Daesh, it became sad and lonely.”

As the two months or so he expected ISIS to survive in Mosul stretched into more than two years, he kept faith that God had a plan. When the Iraqi army began its offensive, he says he began to see that plan more clearly. He noticed how the confidence ISIS fighters had in their mission began to erode even as their brutality increased. They panicked, he says. Executions reached a feverish pitch. Some fighters fled to the western side of the city, across the Tigris River. Their grip on the eastern side began to loosen even before the Iraqi army arrived.

Mosuli then had an epiphany: the fear Islamic State had used to cower Mosul’s people into submission was now turning on them. “Maybe Daesh is God’s way of warning Muslims to beware of following false leaders who only preach hatred,” he says. “The violence they used is now the violence they will suffer. There is some justice in that.”

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Muhammad al Jabouri (pseudonym), 61, spent his entire life in Mosul, witnessing its growth into a thriving metropolis. He then watched as the city slowly disintegrated, in the end succumbing to the rule of the Islamic State. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)
Muhammad al Jabouri (pseudonym), 61, spent his entire life in Mosul, witnessing its growth into a thriving metropolis. He then watched as the city slowly disintegrated, in the end succumbing to the rule of the Islamic State. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

Muhammad al Jabouri

Muhammad al Jabouri was 10 years old when he had his first encounter with terror. More than five decades later, he still remembers the moment vividly, “as if God had set it there” knowing the horrors that would later engulf his beloved Mosul.

“I was with my father in the old bazaar,” says the 61-year-old, who has lived in a camp for the displaced since the Iraqi army pushed into Mosul’s eastern suburbs at the beginning of November. “He used to take me there once a week for some shopping. To be honest, it always scared me as a child. It was so crowded and complicated, so full of twists and turns. I would hold on tight to my father’s hand because I was so afraid of losing him and finding myself alone.”

On one those trips, his worst nightmare came true. It happened so suddenly that Jabouri still tenses up at the memory. Stroking his milk-white beard, he recalls the feeling of being lost in a sea of strangers, of how the crumbling mud-brown buildings seemed to close in on him, of the panic he felt.

The al Samah neighbourhood of his childhood was still a poor, rural satellite compared to Mosul’s bustling centre. That would change dramatically in the coming decades. Rising Arab nationalism would thrust a young Saddam Hussein and his Baath party into the centre of Iraq’s political scene. In 1959, when Jabouri was only four years old, a group of nationalist army officers from Mosul had attempted to overthrow the Iraqi government. Hussein, then 22, had participated in the uprising by leading a group of assassins in a plot to kill Iraq’s prime minister. Both attempts failed but their repercussions would change the face of Mosul forever.

“Saddam never forgot the sacrifices the people of Mosul made to the cause of Arab nationalism,” Jabouri says. “Mosulis became an important part of Saddam’s army. Many young men from the city fought during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the families of those who were killed were given large amounts of money.”

With the infusion of cash, Mosul began to expand rapidly, swallowing up the surrounding villages, including al Samah. Between 1990 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the city flourished, planting the seeds of an abiding love for Saddam Hussein.

Those seeds would bear fruit in the aftermath of the invasion that toppled Saddam’s regime. Mosul became an epicentre for the anti-American insurgency. Many of its residents joined hands with jihadi groups to resist what they perceived as an occupation by foreign powers aligned with their hated enemies in Baghdad, the Iran-backed Shias.

“When the new Iraqi army took control of Mosul, they committed many crimes against the people,” Jabouri says. “They treated us like we were all terrorists. The army was mostly Shia and they didn’t trust the Mosuli people because of their close ties to Saddam Hussein.”

MORE: The dangers in the fight for Mosul—and after it

When Iraq’s al-Qaeda branch returned to the city in June 2014, under the banner of ISIS, they were seen as liberators, Jabouri adds. Many of the jihadists had close ties to people in the city, who had fought alongside them during the insurgency. Hundreds of locals rushed to volunteer with the group, hoping Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, after proclaiming himself caliph in the city’s Great Mosque on July 4, 2014, would fight for their rights.

Within three months however, a very different reality emerged. The brutality of their new overlords infused Mosul with a new terror. Anyone who spoke out against them was publicly executed. Anyone who had even a marginal role in the Iraqi police and security services, including traffic officers, was hunted down and killed, despite Baghdadi’s promise that those who begged forgiveness would be spared.

The maddening chaos in Mosul’s bazaar that had so frightened Jabouri as a child was replaced by a terrifying emptiness. “I visited it once only while it was in Daesh control,” he says. “Everyone was too afraid or too sad to come out of their homes. People feared breaking one of their rules, even by accident. I used to fear getting lost in the bazaar’s crowds. But the last time I went, I felt like I was being swallowed up by its silence.”

Sayyid Younus, 50, is a truck driver from the predominantly Kurdish al Khazr district, about 25km southeast of Mosul, whose business was thriving before the militants arrived. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)
Sayyid Younus, 50, is a truck driver from the predominantly Kurdish al Khazr district, about 25km southeast of Mosul, whose business was thriving before the militants arrived. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

Sayyid Younus

Not everyone suffered under ISIS rule. For some, like Sayyid Younus, the storm that swept over Mosul in 2014 was a cleansing fire.
Younus has adopted the title Sayyid, an honorific signifying he is a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. It’s a common practice among individuals, and sometimes entire tribes, who wish to stake a claim on power and prestige or, at the very least, raise themselves above the rabble.

To Younus, Islamic State symbolized the triumph of his interests over the interests of his enemies. A proud Baathist and devout Sunni Muslim who had fought loyally for Saddam Hussein’s army during the Iran-Iraq war, the 50-year old father of 12 had been brought low by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His trucking business had collapsed after many of his clients— Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds—abandoned him in the face of deepening ethnic and sectarian divides.

“Before the U.S. came, everything was good,” he says. “I was living in a village in Khazr, close to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a good place to be. I could trade with the Kurds to the east and the Arabs to the west. I had good relations with everyone.”

The U.S. invasion changed everything. As the insurgency in Mosul gained steam, Sunni Arabs like Younus, who had benefited under Saddam’s rule, became pariahs in areas like Khazr, home to a large Kurdish population. By the time Islamic State arrived in August 2014, Younus was struggling and his anger at those who had turned against him had massed into a seething hatred.

“I was at the market the day fighters from the Islamic State arrived,” he says, refusing to use the derogatory Arabic acronym, Daesh. “They came in three pickup trucks, about 20 of them in total. They only stayed for three or four days. By then, all the Kurds had already fled and it was only Arabs who were left. The fighters said they had come to liberate us and told us we had to come with them back to Mosul. It was too dangerous for us to be so close to Kurdish territory. They then blew up the bridge over the Khazr River and took us to the city.”

After a few weeks of living with family members, Younus was given a home belonging to a Shia family that had “left the city” in Gogjali, a village on Mosul’s eastern outskirts. It was still a heady time, he says. The dreaded Iraqi army had been vanquished and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had ascended the steps to the pulpit in the Great Mosque to proclaim the establishment of the caliphate. Life was still relatively normal while ISIS militants busied themselves securing their hold on the city and setting up what would become the caliphate’s brutal police state.

Younus revived his trucking business, working with Islamic State’s administration to ferry supplies around the city and into the outlying villages. With the money looted from Mosul’s banks, the militants were flush with cash and Younus was among those who reaped the rewards.
But the situation began to unravel the longer ISIS remained in control. The group’s violence increased dramatically as more people turned against them. As the austerity of its vision for an Islamic society set in, even some of its own members began to break the rules.

The medieval punishments meted out for breaking Islamic law were not a problem for Younus. “Those rules are proscribed by God,” he says.

“Cutting off hands for theft, stoning for adultery—these are good laws. They help Muslims to stay on the right path. They helped me correct some of my mistakes. Other rules, like the ban on smoking, they created themselves. It was a minor rule and they were not strict on it.”

Younus says he worked with Islamic State members to smuggle cigarettes into Mosul. As the city began to suffer economically, the black market thrived and the trade in cigarettes was particularly lucrative. For a truck driver with contacts at ISIS checkpoints, he was well-placed to benefit from the illegal trade.

Now, however, his world has collapsed again. As the Iraqi army continues to push deeper into Mosul and the displaced flee, men like him who adapted to and accepted the caliphate face persecution on two fronts.

“When the Iraqi army came to Gogjali, they said things to me like, ‘Hey, Daesh, come over here,’ ” he says. “People here at the camp don’t say anything but some of them know I worked with the caliphate and I can see in their eyes that they think I am a terrorist. I am not a terrorist. I only did what I needed to do to survive.”