MOSUL, Iraq - How did people survive nearly three years of living under ISIS?
That question ran through my head as I drove for two hours under gray skies from the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Erbil toward Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
Mosul was overrun by jihadis in June 2014 and transformed into their caliphate capital. The eastern half of the city was recently liberated by Iraqi forces, helped by U.S. airpower. But across the Tigris River, the battle for the western side of the city continues. The boom of rockets and bombs is constant as puffs of black smoke plume skyward.
What happens to a city that has been controlled by jihadis for more than two years, many of its children brainwashed and its infrastructure destroyed? Can factors that made it susceptible to takeover be reversed or will ISIS return in a new guise?
Those are questions most Iraqis and Maslawis (Mosul residents) are asking. Me, too.
The road to Mosul lays bare the tragedy of the past three years: One hour out of Erbil long trenches run perpendicular to the road demarcating the line where Kurdish peshmerga fighters made a desperate stand that prevented ISIS hordes from overrunning their capital. Farther on, the road cuts through a string of abandoned towns, with roadside shops and rows of single-family homes standing empty and gutted; these belonged to Chaldean and Assyrian Christians who fled en masse into Kurdistan - mute testimony to the displacement of an ancient community that may never return.
After passing several Iraqi military checkpoints and miles of bare fields, one sees, in the shadow of mountains, endless rows of white tents in the distance; they house tens of thousands of Maslawis who fled the fighting. Finally, we reach the Al Quds neighborhood at the eastern outskirts of the city, scene of a major battle, but now returned to life.
While West Mosul roads are sealed off to trap ISIS fighters, the area east of the Tigris River is open to movement, although militia and police checkpoints are frequent. The main road is lined with piles of rubble, alongside a crush of badly parked cars, in front of stalls selling food, clothing, and supplies; youngsters hawk gasoline from plastic jerry cans. Bridges over the river's tributaries are bombed out and cars snake up and down dirt roads to cross at shallow spots.
Most buildings are intact if battered, their glass fronts gone. But bombed-out storefronts pockmark commercial streets and some residential homes are flattened. However, residents say U.S. and coalition bomb strikes were well-targeted, hitting sites commandeered by ISIS fighters (local resisters secretly phoned in targeting data). Proving their point, I saw untouched buildings sitting next door to bomb-crumpled shells.
Some merchants on commercial streets lined with one- and two-story shops are already replacing shattered glass. A few bakeries and grocery stores are putting out wares, and an occasional restaurant is open. But there is no electricity or water; generators and petrol to run them are expensive.
Schools have reopened, but teachers aren't getting paid, nor are other government workers, including those trying to fix the electrical grid ISIS blew up. Locals are still wary; ISIS swore vengeance on East Mosul as its fighters retreated. ISIS snipers are gone, but last month the jihadis sent drones across the river to drop grenades on crowds.
The popular My Fair Lady restaurant (Sayidati al-Jamila in Arabic) that had reopened on a busy traffic circle was blown up in mid-February by a suicide bomber. Its blackened ruins offer a dire warning to passing drivers that liberation may be a mirage.
Locals worry about an upsurge in suicide bombers or kidnappings - by criminals or jihadis, for cash - once the battle for West Mosul is ended. I was warned not to do interviews in public places lest I attract attention. Some Maslawis I interviewed even feared inviting me to their home (prying neighbors might see) so we drove around in the car.
Which brings me to the stories of life under ISIS.
First, to understand how the jihadis took over, and their post-ISIS prospects, one needs to know a little about this ancient city.
Mosul is a historic crossroads for commerce and culture from nearby Syria and Turkey, with the ruins of ancient Nineveh located east of the river. Although conservative in culture, it was still a multicultural city, populated by a mix of (mostly Sunni) Arabs, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities, and home to Iraq's best university and an educated population. It was also where many serving and retired Sunni Arab army and intelligence forces lived.
Sunni discontent set in with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Shiite dominance in Baghdad. Former Hussein Baath Party loyalists grew beards and became active in al-Qaeda in Iraq during U.S. occupation, although they mostly fled to Syria under U.S. military pressure in the mid-2000s. However, as the United States stopped paying attention and pulled all troops out in 2011, secret jihadi cells reemerged and formed a shadow government in Mosul.
Meantime, al-Qaeda in Iraq regrouped in Syria as ISIS and then swept across the border into Mosul in 2014, welcomed by a minority of secret sympathizers in the city. Iraqi security forces, hollowed out by a corrupt government in Baghdad, fled in the face of the invasion (as did Christians, other minorities, and many professionals). Poorer Maslawis living west of the river, along with the religiously conservative, the resentful, the opportunists, and the fearful, collaborated with the jihadis.
But - and this is key - the bulk of Maslawis, although traditionally religious, did not welcome the invaders but became trapped in a nightmare. East Mosul's middle-class families, who live on streets lined with two- and three-story homes, want a normal life. Yet, unless Baghdad and the international community pay attention to the resurrection of Mosul, a jihadi movement could start incubating again.
Abu Mohammed, an elementary school teacher, living in the Al Quds neighborhood, decided, like many other Maslawis, to wait out the ISIS invasion, believing the Iraqi military would soon regroup and drive the them out. Then ISIS closed off the roads.
The broken windows of his house are covered with plastic and the living room is lit with a battery lamp, as his extended family gathers on couches that line the walls. The teacher spoke ruefully of how his family lived in virtual seclusion for the past two years after the schools were taken over by ISIS. "Like 70 percent of those who stayed, we didn't send our kids to the schools," he said, 'because they used ISIS people to teach and they taught the kids how to kill."
Iraq's central government paid salaries for government workers for the first year, but then ceased because they were effectively funding ISIS. With no income, Abu Mohammed's family lived off cash savings (Maslawis, like most Iraqis, don't trust banks and keep their money at home). They ate from supplies of rice and basics that most middle-income families traditionally stored in their houses.
ISIS regularly showed beheading videos on television to terrify the population into submission, and banned cellphone use, tearing down cell towers and using children to spy on neighbors for phone use. Still Abu Mohammed and his son often went up on their roof in the middle of the night, searching for a phone signal with an old-fashioned aerial they rigged up. Had they been caught, well, his sister runs her finger across her neck.
Those who sought to escape had no choice but to pay smugglers, who charged $5,000 per adult and $2,000 per child via a circuitous route into Syria.
Abu Asil, a barber whose home I also visited in the Al Bakir neighborhood, tried twice to escape. Each time the trip was aborted and he lost his money. A relative was caught but got lucky; ISIS thugs bound his eyes, told him he was going to die, and shot a bullet that creased his ear. For some reason, they let him live.
Abu Asil's barbershop lost all its business since ISIS forced men to grow long beards. But a friend once begged him to trim the side hairs of his beard. An ISIS security guard noticed him snipping and brought him to a "court" inside a commandeered church, where a Saudi ISIS "judge" sentenced him to 30 lashes with a rubber hose.
Sitting in his living room, where his wife served tea and bottled water and a generator hummed in the garden, the barber described at length how ISIS taxed Maslawis to help finance its rule. "They were much better than the government in collecting money," he said. In fact, what ISIS practiced - in a society that depends on oil-fueled government socialism - was a bizarre form of capitalism, charging high rates for services and goods, enforced with the whip and the knife.
Where health care had previously been free, ISIS charged exorbitant fees for every test. They collected a high sum from each household for collecting the garbage, and they controlled fuel sales, selling gasoline and kerosene at stiff prices on the street in litre containers. Even street peddlers were forced to obtain licenses for a fee.
And ISIS was obsessive about women's dress, forcing women and girls to cover totally in black, including their face. Once Abu Asil went to the bazaar with his young daughter, who was totally covered but wore lace socks that showed a tiny bit of skin around her ankles. An ISIS policeman threatened a beating, until he pleaded for forgiveness.
If you hid out at home, you might escape attention, although Abu Asil's wife was threatened after being seen by a spy walking in her walled garden without her face entirely covered. But a neighbor had a hand cut off for supposedly stealing, and neighbors disappeared after knocks on the door, never to be seen again. Thousands of ex-army and police were executed, but not in public.
Once the army laid siege to East Mosul, ISIS fighters knocked on Abu Asil's door and told him they were going to take the women and children away to a nearby town and force the men to fight alongside them. That night the barber gathered his extended family, including small children and one elderly lady whom they had to carry, and they embarked on a harrowing journey over adjacent rooftops, and across streets manned by ISIS snipers. Two bullets narrowly missed him. Although the distance they had to cover to reach the front lines of the Iraqi army was only a few blocks, their escape took six hours.
After the escape, ISIS took over their house and used it as a sniper's nest, punching a hole in the front wall that is now covered by a piece of wood. Other residents were made to drill holes in their walls so ISIS fighters could pass from house to house unseen. One ISIS redoubt down the street was smashed by a coalition bomb. A car bomb full of C4 explosives that ISIS left around the corner from his house, in hopes of destroying the neighborhood, failed to go off and was dismantled by the army.
Now Abu Asil's family is liberated, yet like almost every middle-class Maslawi I met they are debating whether to leave the city for good, for Kurdistan or anywhere that will take them. They complain that the government is providing no reconstruction aid, and only the army is delivering water. They rail against the corruption in Baghdad and Mosul's civilian government that led to the city's fall.
Residents fear that sleeper cells may be watching them. Foreign ISIS fighters - from Russia, Asia, the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa, and, some say, America - and local ISIS leaders known to the community are dead or gone. But everyone I spoke with believes that other ISIS adherents have shaved their beards and are waiting to regroup.
Abu Mohammed is planning to move to Kurdistan to stay with relatives. As for Abu Asil, he was sitting with his father in the My Fair Lady restaurant when it blew up. Although they were unhurt, the restaurant's owner, a man whose charity supported scores of families, was killed.
Abu Asil's barbershop, next door to the restaurant, is a charred shell, and he believes rebuilding is too risky and too expensive. Yet if the middle class, as typified by Abu Mohammed and Abu Asil, flees liberated Mosul, the poor and displaced may provide the sea in which the next iteration of ISIS can flourish.
Without a political (and economic) plan to follow the military campaign to liberate Mosul, Baghdad officials and their U.S. ally may yet lose the war.
Next: The civic volunteers of Mosul - basis for hope?