Love in the time of ISIS

Mustafa and Rosul planned to marry, until ISIS came and tragedy tore them apart. They feared they'd never see each other again.

Kirkuk, Iraq Rosol Abd al Karim and her fiance, Mustafa Sofyan in the home of her relatives in Kirkuk. Rosol's family escaped Mosul at the height of the Islamic State's brutal rule.

Rosol Abd al Karim and her fiance, Mustafa Sofyan in the home of her relatives in Kirkuk. Rosol’s family escaped Mosul at the height of Islamic State’s brutal rule.

Mustafa Sofyan met Rosol Abd al Karim for the first time on a bright morning in the spring of 2014. ‘Met’ might actually be too strong a word for it. In the religiously conservative world of Mosul, a boy does not ‘meet’ a girl. He sees her across a field in a crowded park. He catches a glimpse of her hazel, almond shaped eyes. He is struck by her red lips as they part into a radiant smile.

These are the details Mustafa remembers from that moment.

“She was with her family,” the 20-year old recalls. “I saw her and I went closer. I couldn’t talk to her but I fell in love immediately. It was like a fever. From that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I found excuses to be close to her, just so I could see her.”

Rosol, also 20, remembers that time as well, though for very different reasons.

“It went on for days,” she remembers. “Everyday I would see this boy staring at me as I went to school. Just staring and staring. I thought it was weird.”

It was unusual in more ways than one. Mosul in early 2014 was not a place that inspired love stories. The apoplectic city of nearly two million exhausted inhabitants had lived through Iraq’s brutal insurgency, led by religious fanatics whose idea of love was sacrificing yourself for the glory of God. For them, teenage love was dangerous.

But for Mustafa, the fear of fanatics was a pittance compared to his fear of never properly meeting Rosol. He mustered the courage to pass on his cellphone number to her through a mutual friend. To his delight, she called him, if at first only to tell him to stop staring at her all the time. A poet at heart, it didn’t take him long to win her over.

“He could talk,” Rosol remembers. “He was so unlike other boys who pretend to be men.  He could tell me exactly how he was feeling and I fell in love with him because of it.”

But if all good love stories turn on a moment, Mustafa and Rosol’s was the day the fanatics came back. It was June 2014. The winds of war had been swirling in Syria for three years and Iraq’s extremists had taken advantage of it. More powerful than ever, they swept through Mosul and established what they called a true “Islamic State.”

After more than a year of terror and tragedy, Rosol and her family fled the city.  Later, when communications were cut, Rosol and Mustafa feared they may never see each other again.  In his journal, Mustafa recorded his feelings the day Rosol left:

“On that day, my heart was beating so fast,” he lamented.  “It was like it was in the grip of a cruel hand or as if someone was sitting on my chest.”

For other inhabitants too, love was extinguished and would remain on pause for the two and half years of ISIS’s brutal reign.

Now, however, something astonishing is happening. In early January, the Iraqi government announced it had liberated Mosul’s eastern half. Within weeks, wedding cars decorated with colourful ribbons began to appear on its shattered streets, weaving through gaping craters left behind by airstrikes, skirting the decomposing bodies that still turn up every now and then, discarded on the roadside or strung up on lampposts—a macabre warning to any Islamic State sympathizers of the fate that awaits them. Revelers risked weaponized drones buzzing overhead, the Islamic State’s latest innovation, and honked their way to private homes where they danced and sang.

In these defiant displays, love was rekindling in Mosul, its power overcoming the horrors its inhabitants had endured.

Like so many others, Mustafa and Rosol have waited an agonizingly long time for this moment to arrive.  Their story is perhaps more compelling than most. It is a love that was forged through trials of fire, in a society that values marriages based on social class more than love.

Mustafa, the eldest son of a taxi driver, has flirted with poverty for as long as he can remember. His father struggled to keep the family afloat even before war brought them to destitution.

Rosol comes from a military family. Her father, a retired army officer, has prided himself on providing a good life for his children, including a private education.

Rosol’s father did not approve of their relationship. Rosol and Mustafa quietly spoke for hours on the phone and passed each other notes in that universally innocent display of teenage love. But they were inevitably found out. Rosol’s mother, Lemia Akram, discovered her daughter’s clandestine affair. She confronted Mustafa.

“I told him to leave my daughter alone,” she says.  “But he wouldn’t listen. ‘I love her!’ He told me. ‘I will marry her.’”

She felt sorry for him, Akram, says. He was handsome and intelligent. In any other situation, she would have approved. But Rosol’s father, Khalil Abd al Karim, believing Mustafa was really only after Rosol to improve his station in life, was adamant that his daughter would finish her education and then marry a man worthy of her.

Mustafa was relentless. On more than one occasion he brought his mother to Rosol’s house, a tradition in Arab countries, and begged for her hand. Each time, al Karim refused and Mustafa left in tears.

The arrival of Islamic State ironically proved to be the catalyst that changed al Karim’s mind. The horrors ISIS brought with it convinced him that his daughter’s happiness was more important than tradition. Iraq’s history had taught him how fragile life can be, how it teeters on a precipice and can so easily tip into tragedy. At least his daughter should be with the man she loves, he thought.

“We have a story in our literary tradition,” al Karim says. “It’s called Leyla and Majnun.  It’s a little like your Romeo and Juliet.  Mustafa and Rosol’s story is like that. Mustafa proved his love through his determination.”

The couple was engaged with little fanfare. Islamic State had plunged Mosul into uncertainty. It’s austere brand of Islam made little room for celebration. The two lovers decided to delay their wedding for what they thought would be a few months. It turned into years.

Over that time, everything collapsed. Mustafa’s father lost his taxi business. He managed to find a job at Mosul University as a security guard. The family survived on his meagre earnings and by selling pieces of gold jewelry Mustafa’s mother had been saving to help pay for her son’s wedding. But after the university was hit by coalition airstrikes in March 2016, she was forced to sell everything to help the family survive.

Rosol’s family suffered in other ways. Money was not an issue (they had enough savings to get by). But after more than a year of Islamic State rule, Rosol’s older sister suffered what doctors thought was a brain hemorrhage. They ordered a CT scan but by then, Mosul’s medical facilities had crumbled. A scanner was functioning but it was reserved for Islamic State members. Others had to wait, sometimes for weeks.

As their daughter’s condition worsened, Akram and al Karim became more desperate.  They offered money for a scan. They were refused. Taking her to the hospital became a nightmare. Fanatical religious policemen refused to let al Karim accompany his daughter into the women’s ward. If she was receiving oxygen in the presence of a male doctor, they insisted she keep her face veiled.

The day she died, al Karim had raced out of the hospital to receive special permission to be by her side. He knew she was close to death. He begged the religious police to give him permission but they insisted on following proper procedures. By the time he received it, she was already dead. She was 23.

The experience shattered what little will Rosol’s family had left. They had witnessed so much death already. Islamic State made it a point to keep the people under its control up to date on their latest execution methods. Television screens set up around the city, including hospital waiting rooms, would show so-called traitors being killed in progressively more brutal ways: drowning, beheading, boiling in vats of hot oil. In one case al Karim remembers seeing a man who had an explosive belt tied around his neck and then detonated.

In December 2015, he decided to take his family out of Mosul, no easy task in those days.  Leaving the city also required special permission. To ensure people would return, the Islamic State would not allow entire families to leave at once. If they did, they warned, they would take possession of their homes.

“But Daesh was not united,” al Karim says, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.  “They operated more like a mafia. Some of them were involved in illegal activities to make money. We were able to pay one of them to find us a smuggler who agreed to take us out of the city. It was in a truck carrying goods to Raqqa [the Islamic State’s capital in Syria]. We hid under some furniture. From there, we were smuggled to Kurdish-controlled areas near the Turkish border and from there back into Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and finally to Kirkuk.”

Rosol was distraught. She refused to leave at first, insisting that she would stay in Mosul with Mustafa, even if it meant death. But al Karim would not leave without her and in the end, she relented. The family moved in with family members in Kirkuk, 180 km southeast of Mosul, in another upscale neighbourhood reserved for army officers.

The separation hit Mustafa and Rosol hard. Initially, they continued to speak by cellphone but when Islamic State banned those, they resorted to Facebook chats.  When that was cut, they were plunged into a black hole. For seven months, communication stopped completely.

Mustafa survived by writing in his journal.

“Inside me there is a love that is cutting me to pieces,” he wrote in July 2016. “When I think of her, my heart beats and beats. My life is full of misery and tears. It is empty. My Lord help me. Nothing is beyond your means, my Lord. Hear my prayers.”


A believer might say God was listening. When Islamic State was driven out of eastern Mosul, its residents immediately began to rebuild their lives. Markets re-opened, even in the midst of the death and destruction. Cellphone service was quickly restored.

The first time Mustafa heard Rosol’s voice again at the beginning of January this year, it was as if a weight had been lifted from his chest, he says. The suffocation he had felt for months disappeared. Mosul was in ruins, his family reduced to begging friends for money. But they had both survived.

On Feb. 4, Mustafa began the trip to Kirkuk to visit Rosol. It was a difficult journey. Without special permission, Arabs like him are barred from entering Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and the most direct route to Kirkuk. The Kurds fear Sunni Arabs from Mosul. Like the Shia before them, they assume any man of fighting age travelling alone is a potential terrorist.

Instead, Mustafa was forced to take the route south to Baghdad, skirting Islamic State territory and talking his way through Iraqi army checkpoints. He then made his way back north to Kirkuk. A journey that would have taken him two hours through Kurdistan lasted a grueling 19 hours.

But it was worth it. The moment Mustafa and Rosol set eyes on each, they broke down in tears. She ran to him across the small garden at the home she shares with two dozen other family members and fell into his arms.

In conservative Arab culture, such physical closeness between an unmarried man and woman is considered a serious violation of social norms. But in this case, no one cared.

Akram, Rosol’s mother, wept with joy. Her father smiled, clearly overcome with emotion. The couple held each other close and when they let go, they held hands, refusing to be separated again.

For the rest of the day, they were inseparable. They wandered together through an amusement park near Rosol’s home. They made plans for their wedding, even though Mustafa would be returning to Mosul after two days. He would find work, he promised her. He would help his family recover from the devastation they had suffered and then he would give Rosol the wedding of her dreams.

“I will find a way,” Mustafa said. “We survived Daesh. There is nothing that can stop us now.”