Every time the Islamic State knocked on the door of the west Mosul home, two things would happen.
Ahmed, a former Iraqi police officer, would race to an underground hiding place. And Waha, his wife, would answer the door and try to refuse the jihadists entry, pleading ignorance of her husband’s whereabouts.
“I am alone, a woman,” Waha, a mother of four, recalls telling the IS militants each time, appealing to their professed respect for Muslim women. “I was so afraid.”
The ruse worked, but the family knew the lie to protect Ahmed was unsustainable.
Those terrifying moments became more frequent as Iraqi forces squeezed IS out of eastern Mosul in January and set their sights on the west of the city – launching a new offensive last week to remove the jihadists from their last remaining urban stronghold in the country.
As the offensive loomed, IS fighters trapped in western Mosul with no exit routes put even more pressure on local residents, hunting with new aggressiveness for possible collaborators, who could inform advancing Iraqi forces of IS defenses. Families who had endured nearly three years under IS rule, marked by now-familiar atrocities like beheadings and crucifixions, felt the pressure build further to make the life-and-death decision about whether to stay or attempt to escape.
Ahmed and Waha – they asked that their real names not be used – recounted their saga in front of their children in a corner of the Haj Ali camp, a well-organized grid of white and blue canvas United Nations tents that now holds more than 5,000 Iraqis displaced by the fighting, some 40 miles south of Mosul.
So far an estimated 170,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to liberate Mosul, many of them now living in a string of camps south and east of the city. Some 1,000 more arrived at Iraqi government positions Monday morning, Reuters reported, adding to roughly 10,000 who have so far escaped the western Mosul fight.
The couple was interviewed along with Ammar Gergis Adham, another former policeman, whose family was in a nearby camp. Their stories illustrate the excruciating choices an estimated 750,000 civilians are being asked to make as Iraqi security forces appeal to them to stay in their homes during the fight.
The presence of civilians has slowed down the Iraqi forces’ advance throughout the Mosul campaign, and made civilians vulnerable to being used as human shields by IS or to being caught in the crosshairs. While that may have added to the civilian death toll – with one estimate of 500 dying in east Mosul – the policy has meant less overall damage to the city, and a swifter return to normal life in liberated areas.
Still, the pressure on both these families was too much, and using guile and disguise they escaped from IS territory in recent days, but at high cost: each of them left behind brothers captured by IS.
“They took my brother, and I don’t know if he is alive or not,” says Mr. Adham, who wears a black faux-leather jacket. His calm demeanor belies the scale of his exhaustion and relief at getting out the rest of his family. “Ninety-nine percent I think they killed him.”
A turn against the Islamic State
Both families lived in Wadi Hajar, a district at the northwest corner of the Mosul airport – the first objective of the latest offensive, captured by Iraqi forces over the weekend – which is known for housing police and Army officers and their families.
They chose to stay in their homes when IS first arrived in June 2014, because at first it was easy to travel in and out, and IS initially used a lighter touch after declaring the creation of an Islamic caliphate in its territory in Iraq and Syria. Mosul, with upwards of 1.5 million citizens, was meant to be a model of popular Islamic rule.
It wasn’t long before that changed, as citizens increasingly turned against IS, by refusing, for example, to send their children to IS schools whose jihadist curriculum turned basic math equations into counting bullets and grenades.
But by then fleeing was a punishable offense, and the cost of smuggling an entire family out of Mosul rose to $5,000.
“IS would kill people if they tried to leave,” says Adham, a 38-year-old with short gelled hair and a slight build. The worst IS act he says he witnessed was the killing of a young man, perhaps 15 and accused of being gay, who was pushed off a high building. After three attempts that failed to kill the boy, he was shot in the head.
Fleeing across the Tigris
While residents of Mosul became used to such events – including executions for which people were rounded up and forced to attend, as a lesson of IS punishment – the pressure of recent months was of a different kind, these Mosul residents say.
With the help of a friend, Ahmed, Waha, and their children finally fled by boat across the Tigris River a few nights ago. “If I stayed there, they would kill me,” says Ahmed. “The best way was for us to escape.”
Adham had already come to the same conclusion.
“We thought every day they would come for us and kill us,” says Adham, who began his family’s escape three weeks ago. “They call us infidels because we [former police and soldiers] help the Iraqi Army.”
Staying behind, he first sent his family: a brother wounded in the head by a sniper, his right arm paralyzed, and his wife and three children, carrying just three bags across a small bridge.
Adham’s wife carried a tiny memory chip hidden inside her clothes that had hundreds of incriminating photographs, including many of him in his police uniform. Until then, it had been secreted away inside a pillow.
An escape in disguise
Two nights later, with the family already safe, it was Adham’s turn. He dressed in what Iraqis call the “Kandahar” style favored by extreme Salafist Sunnis like IS – a long thick beard, baggy short trousers, and a characteristic head covering. He even put a short wooden sprig in his pocket, like those that many IS fighters chew to clean teeth.
Adham carried nothing. He took off during evening prayers, when he knew many IS jihadists would be in mosques, and then – heart racing – he passed quickly and unnoticed through the last IS checkpoint, precisely as an ambulance laden with wounded fighters arrived, which distracted the guards.
“They were busy,” says Adham, smiling.
He could not be more angry with IS, and says the earnings of 10 years of work were spent in 2-1/2 years, keeping his family alive when he could not work.
“My dream is to be a policeman again,” says Adham. “Right now I want to fight.”
Ahmed, too, says he is eager to return to police work. And both men are relatively optimistic that the worst is over, for them at least.