After ISIS, People From Mosul Fear What May Come Next

Oct 18, 2016
Originally published on October 18, 2016 6:44 pm

The man from Mosul is neat and tidy, in his mid-30s. He uses careful English and tries to stop his voice from trembling as he speaks about the Iraqi city he lived in all his life.

"My mind is full with memories," he says. "Friends. Home. You know — my home. I was born there."

ISIS has occupied Mosul for more than two years. Residents describe a regime of strict rules and savagely violent punishments for breaking them. The man is too afraid of ISIS to give his name or occupation, but he is a professional. He brought up a family in Mosul.

"We have house, we have car, we have jobs, we have life, we are normal people," he says.

He fled after living a year under the extremists, and his nostalgia is tangible. Now, the long-awaited military operations to retake Mosul are getting underway. What does he see for his future if the city is wrested back?

"I miss the home," he says. "But going home is like killing myself."

He says he expects chaos and violent retribution if ISIS is pushed out of Mosul. He fears that families who lost loved ones to the militants will take revenge not just on those who worked with ISIS, but on their whole families.

"There is no law, in the years to come," he says. "The government is weak. I don't trust these guys."

He regards his life in Mosul as over. He never plans to go back, and says when he sits with his friends from Mosul in the nearby city of Irbil, they do not speak of home.

None of them will return, so reminiscence is painful.

His cynicism about the capacity of the local officials, now in exile, to run a post-ISIS Mosul is widespread, and tacitly shared by Western diplomats here.

When questioned, Iraqi officials are keen to talk about the military strategy to retake the city, but are vague on details of security, justice or reconciliation.

Nofal Hamdani Sultan, governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, says the fate of people will simply be decided by law.

"If anyone work with Daesh, he go to the jail," he says, using ISIS' Arabic acronym.

When asked about the families of such people, he says any family with a father or a brother in ISIS will all leave, including women and children, "maybe outside Iraq, maybe to Turkey, to Syria."

This, he concedes, could number tens of thousands of people.

And on security, he says the holding force for a Mosul retaken from ISIS should be only the local police. But there are currently only 8,000 police ready for the job. Before the events of 2014, Mosul had 32,000 police.

The anxiety of Mosul's people about their future highlights a wider crisis across Iraq: In most places retaken from ISIS, most of the population has been unable to return home.

More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced since ISIS' predecessor, al-Qaida, took Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. Although those numbers are not officially broken down by sect or ethnicity, aid workers say the majority of the displaced are Sunni Arabs.

ISIS is Sunni, and most of its support in Iraq has been drawn from the Sunni Arab minority, which has chafed under a government led since 2003 by parties from the Shiite majority.

But millions of Sunni Arabs have suffered at the hands of the extremists. They now face a bleak future. Many of their homes have been destroyed in the fighting against ISIS, and they say they are treated as complicit with ISIS by the security forces and some other Iraqis. In some areas, they have been prevented from returning home.

The displaced man from Mosul who doesn't believe he can go home becomes agitated as he talks about the way he's perceived.

"Now everyone hates the Sunni, they think we are Daesh," he says. "What about me? What about me who escaped? What about the doctors, the teachers? You cannot say everyone is Daesh."

Although he doesn't trust officials set to govern Mosul, he sees them merely as corrupt and inefficient. It's ISIS he really blames for ripping his world apart.

"It makes me too angry," he says. "They killed everything. Killed history. They killed people. They killed hope. Killed future. They killed everything."

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The city of Mosul, Iraq, has lived under the repressive rule of ISIS for more than two years. It's the largest city ISIS controls with maybe a million people still living inside. Now government forces and their allies are pushing toward Mosul. They say the battle could take weeks or months. They insist they will retake the city, but then what? NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil about 50 miles from Mosul, I meet a man who fled after living under ISIS for about a year. He'd been living in Mosul all his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My minds is full with memories, friends, home, you know, my home. I belong there.

FORDHAM: He's still too afraid of ISIS to let me give his name or even his occupation, but he's a professional in his 30s with a family. And when I ask about returning home if the city is retaken, he says something that surprises me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm missing the home, but going back to home's like killing myself.

FORDHAM: I ask why he'd say that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is no law for years, coming years. The government is weak.

FORDHAM: No law, he says, because he doesn't trust the security forces, and he doesn't trust the politicians who are now in exile but plan to resume running Mosul once ISIS is defeated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No one can ask us to trust in these guys.

FORDHAM: He doesn't trust these guys because he doesn't believe they will keep the city safe. He thinks there will be chaos and revenge killing. Some people in Mosul worked with ISIS during their brutal, sadistic rule, and he fears that not just the perpetrators but their families will be subjected to vigilante violence. He doesn't want to be caught in the middle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't want to go back there.

FORDHAM: I speak to other displaced people who say they'll never go back. They don't trust local officials because they see them as corrupt and inefficient. That's an assessment Western diplomats here tacitly agree with, and people blame the security forces for ISIS being able to take the city in a lightning assault two years ago.

When I meet with Iraqi officials, they're happy to talk about the planning that's gone into the military strategy to retake Mosul but are much less specific on how to hold and govern it.

NAWFAL HAMADI SULTAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: I meet with the governor of the province, Nawfal Hamadi Sultan. He says it's very simple. Anyone who worked with ISIS will be dealt with according to Iraqi law. He refers to ISIS by the Arabic name Daesh.

SULTAN: He work with Daesh; he go to the jail.

FORDHAM: And what about the families, I ask. He switches to Arabic.

SULTAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says any family which had a father or brother in ISIS - they will all leave. To clarify, I ask if that includes women and children. He says yes. I ask where they'll go.

SULTAN: Maybe outside of Iraq.

FORDHAM: I asked where outside of Iraq. From across an enormous desk, he shrugs - maybe Syria or Turkey. And when I ask if he's talking about, say, 5 or 10 percent of the current population of Mosul, he says, sure, maybe. That would be tens of thousands of people.

A look at the rest of Iraq indicates the people of Mosul have reason to be fearful for their future. Several major cities have been retaken from ISIS, but the government has been unable or unwilling to provide security and services there. There's a lot of people still waiting to go home. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Erbil, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.