Just days ago, in one of the most terrifying and exhilarating nights imaginable, a young Iraqi woman and her family were delivered from the barbaric hell of Islamic State–controlled territory just south of Mosul. After this daring escape, I now know that life for civilians currently trapped under ISIS domination is even worse than has been imagined.
I am currently traveling around northern Iraq to obtain a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground and what might occur if government troops launch an assault to retake Mosul this summer, as is expected. I’ve interviewed Sunni Muslims, Yazidis and Christians living in refugee camps who fled ISIS, military commanders, and others who known the region and its people well. A few days ago I met Mohammed Saadoon, a young Iraqi Sunni Muslim, who had been forced to flee the city of Bayji in 2014 with his wife and young son to escape a death sentence placed on him by ISIS. He told me, with obvious joy, that his twenty-seven-year old cousin Mayam Maoulood had just escaped from the Mosul area in an incredibly high-risk breakout.
In order to keep ISIS from discovering the mechanism by which the family escaped, I will provide only general information about when and where the breakout occurred; Mayam wants to make sure these guides have a chance to help others escape. But I have permission to share considerable details about the current conditions around Mosul and the particulars of their perilous journey to freedom.
Before I sat down to talk with Mayam, her cousin Mohammed told me that she had been so traumatized by the intensity of the escape that she had been unable to stand for several days, and only now could walk for short distances, so the interview would be short. She was joined in the interview by Mohammed and her brother, Aziz. As I quickly discovered, the flight Mohammed had taken to escape his death sentence was tame in comparison to what Mayam has endured for the past two years.
When ISIS first started seizing territory in the summer of 2014, the situation in Mayam’s hometown of Bayji was initially chaotic and uncertain. As the violence and mistreatment of the civil population degenerated into outright barbarism, her family fled to a certain location in the southern environs of Mosul. ISIS soon took over there as well, and then all routes of escape were cut off. They were trapped.
She said when the Iraqi army was in charge prior to the rise of ISIS, the people didn’t like some things about them, but Mayam was emphatic when she contrasted the barbarity of the Sunni ISIS with what she now sees as the tame Shia-led army. She said over the past two years one of the most common forms of punishment for even trivial crimes had been death by beheading. But in one of the more heinous examples, she told a gut-wrenching story about what happened to a family she knew.
Some months ago, two brothers who lived in her neighborhood had tried to escape in the night. An ISIS patrol caught them and summarily executed them by beheading. They took the two heads to the front of the house where the boys lived with their parents and stuck them on pikes for all to see. They did not permit anyone to remove the bodies or the heads. After about two weeks of having to see her mutilated sons, the mother went insane and lost the ability to function.
Within Iraq, there remains a sharp divide between Shia and Sunni citizens, with many members of one group hating the other. But within the Mosul area, she said, “ISIS is a Sunni extremist group. Yet I tell you that the group who suffers the most from ISIS are the Sunni Muslims!”
“Shortly after ISIS’s arrival,” she continued, “they rounded up all the Sunnis who had ever served in the army, police or worked with the government and beheaded them. Anyone who stands against them are executed. They didn’t even try to convince any of us their way was superior or that their way of Islam was better for us. They just treated us like animals.” She also told me that there is widespread hunger and starvation among the entire population in and around Mosul. In recent months she had gone from weighing 140 pounds to only one hundred—and she looked as thin and frail as you would expect.
When I asked why, with such barbaric treatment, the Sunnis had not risen against ISIS in revolt, she was very animated in her response. “When the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] was in charge, they wouldn’t let civilians have guns. They took them all from us. When Daesh [an Arabic name for ISIS] came, they got all the heavy weapons and ammunition left behind by the Iraqi army. We had no means to fight them. We were powerless.” When I asked her if she’d rather have the Shia-dominated army in charge of the city instead of ISIS, she hesitated.
“I don’t like the Shia,” Mayam began. “Neither do I want ISIS. All we want is to live in peace. We don’t want any more war.” Indicating just how sick of war she and her family had become, she said, “right now we are all deeply traumatized by what ISIS has done to us. In the past when we had heard bombs or fighting, we would run from it to be safe. Now if we hear the sounds of battle, in hopes it is the Iraqi Army coming to liberate us we will run to it, even at the risk of being killed in crossfire. Right now,” she said in resignation, “I would support the [Shia-dominated] Iraqi Army against ISIS.”
But even in such horrific conditions, there was nothing Mayam or her family could do. ISIS long ago barricaded the city from outside attack, but also prevented residents from fleeing. According to reports, as many as one million people remain trapped there. Yet despite knowing that their own neighbors had been murdered for attempting to escape, Mayam’s family decided life had become so unbearable that risking death in making an attempt of their own was worth a chance to be free.
Their extended family included five adults between the ages of twenty-seven and fifty-eight, and six children, from her one-year-old baby to nine years of age. Smuggling so many out at once would be very difficult. “Some time ago, without my knowledge, my husband began quietly seeking out a smuggler who could get us out,” she began. “I think he didn’t tell me because he knew I was well aware it would be certain death if we got caught,” and he didn’t want to add to her already high stress level. Once he had found two men who agreed to get them out, the family had to move immediately, because there was always the risk of someone alerting ISIS, so “he came in one night and suddenly announced, ‘okay, let’s go—now!’”
“I can’t tell you how scared I was,” she recalled, “but I was also excited about the possibility of being free. . . . The two guides arrived later on, and we all left the house after darkness fell. We walked as quietly as we could for four hours in the dark.” The plan had been to try and evade detection under cover of night and slip past the ISIS sentinels and make it to the peshmerga lines. Apparently, the guides told the family very little about the plan, and so Mayam was shocked when the group suddenly stopped around midnight and the guides announced: “There is a minefield.”
They had reached the forwardmost defenses ISIS had set up to defend against external attack. The travelers wondered how they would get through. The guides had an answer. Prior to beginning the escape, under the guise of herding sheep, the smugglers had sent the animals into the minefield. When the sheep made it through, the men carefully placed markers on the ground. When the animal blew up, well. . . They knew where not to go. The cleared lanes were very small and the family could only go through one at a time. I asked Mayam what she was thinking as she and her family members begin walking that treacherous path.
“I was of course very scared because I knew I could step on a mine. But,” she told me frankly, “I was more scared of staying behind with ISIS than risking stepping on a mine.” But getting blown up in the minefield wasn’t the only threat they had to worry about. “Before our escape, someone else had tried to make it through the minefield and almost succeeded, but an ISIS sniper shot him. He was able to limp away but we heard he died of blood loss before the peshmerga could save him.” Eventually the guides and the eleven family members made it through the minefield just after midnight. But still they were not out of danger.