Life under ISIS: Mosul residents reflect on a brutal occupation

CBC News recently spent a week in Mosul, speaking to residents about what it was like living under the world's most feared terrorist group.

'We couldn't go out. We couldn't choose the clothes we wanted to buy,' one woman says

After ISIS fighters took over Mosul in June 2014, the militants quickly transformed all aspects of daily life in Iraq's second-largest city, from the dress code to personal grooming to the local economy.

CBC News recently spent a week in Mosul, speaking to residents and soldiers with Iraqi security forces, which have retaken large chunks of the occupied city.

These vignettes offer a fuller picture of what it was like living under the world's most feared terrorist group.

Living in the dark

Necessities of life often taken for granted disappeared when ISIS stormed into Mosul.

Sabah Abdullah and three of her six children. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

Taps ran dry (and in fact remain that way three years later). Meanwhile, residents could only turn on the lights for three hours a day.

"We didn't have heat in the winter," said Sabah Abdullah, a mother of six who fled western Mosul a week ago with her extended family.

The electricity situation has scarcely improved — since the Iraqi military launched its offensive against ISIS last fall, the city has been in complete darkness. Some residents now run generators for a few hours a day, but only if they can afford the price of fuel.

Sabah Abdullah prepares sweet tea for her family. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Punishing rules

When ISIS first arrived, it took over the airwaves, broadcasting messages of intimidation on radio and television to keep residents in line. They also erected big-screen TVs in public squares to publicize their harsh rules.

A religious police unit called the Hesba Division was deployed to enforce these rules. 

Like all women in the city, Abdullah was not allowed to be outside her home alone. When she did leave, she had to cover her face.

Failing to comply could have led to a public lashing.

"They destroyed us," she said. "We couldn't go out. We couldn't choose the clothes we wanted to buy."

ISIS also gave instructions on the proper length a man should keep his beard, as the militants deemed shaving immoral. In areas recently freed from ISIS, men have been lining up for a shave, as a sign of liberation.

A barber trims the beard of a Mosul resident. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Under ISIS, smoking cigarettes and communicating with the wider world were also strictly forbidden.

"If they found a cellphone in your pocket, you will be killed," said Sabah Abdullah's brother, Younis. "[ISIS] are animals, really. They don't respect humanity."

A senior Iraqi police officer estimated that in the early days of the occupation, 90 per cent of Mosul's population supported ISIS, which is also known as Daesh.

Younis Abdullah, right, and a friend outside a temporary home in east Mosul. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Friends and neighbours of Younis Abdullah were among those who backed the militants — and, in some cases, joined them.

"Some of my friends go with Daesh because they think like Daesh," he said. "They were robbing homes and killing people and torturing people."

But as ISIS's brutality spread through the city, that popular support deteriorated.

Little food, no work

Nowadays, Um Quasi makes the trip to the market every day. During a recent visit, as vegetable sellers yelled out the prices of their wares, she wandered from stall to stall looking for the ingredients for dinner: cauliflower and lamb for stew.

Um Quasi buys cauliflower at an open-air market in east Mosul. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

She recalled a very different scene when ISIS fighters roamed the streets. There were only a few shop owners, offering limited options and all at much higher prices.

Lamb and chicken often sold at four times the price she pays today. Staples such as cooking oil and rice were also very costly.

"We didn't have enough money to buy meat, so we were making only soup and rice," said Quasi.

A vendor in a bustling fruit and vegetable market in east Mosul. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

With ISIS in control, a significant portion of the city's workforce was left idle. Civic employees were not paid. Factories were shut or transformed into ISIS munitions plants and staffed by supporters of the militant group.

"My boys were at home and there were no job opportunities for them, so they didn't have money," said Quasi. "In my heart I was in pain."

Eager to learn again

Thirteen-year-old Ahmad Firas is a gifted student, according to his teachers. He comes across as shy when you first meet him but when you ask what it's like to be back in school, his eyes light up and he breaks into a broad smile.

"I was so happy when the school reopened. Life became normal when we came back to school."

Firas attends Kufa primary school, which is located in the eastern side of Mosul. When classes resumed in December, it became the first school in the city to reopen.

Students at Kufa primary school. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Education was one of the biggest casualties under ISIS rule. The militants did not allow girls to attend classes. Boys could study, but the self-proclaimed Islamic State altered the curriculum to reflect their brutal ideology.

One math textbook contained this chilling problem: There are 42 bullets and seven unbelievers in front of you. How many shots in your sniper rifle do you have for each?

Ahmad Firas, centre, in his science class. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Firas's parents did not allow him to study under ISIS, so he remained at home for more than 2½ years. He sometimes ventured outside to play with friends, but spent most of the time indoors, "because of the shelling, mortars and stuff."

Firas dreams of becoming a doctor, but worries that he might not be able to make up for losing two years of school.

"We lost everything," he said, "even our reading skills."

The Iraqi soldier

Ali Salah Hamid, a special forces soldier, came to Mosul to not only help defeat ISIS but restore the reputation of the Iraqi army.

When Islamic State fighters stormed the city in 2014, they did not expect to take Mosul so quickly. They were vastly outnumbered by Iraqi soldiers.

But the army chose to retreat rather than fight. It happened so quickly, some of the military men left their guns behind.

It was an embarrassing moment for the Iraqi army, but the defeat also serves as motivation for the 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, Shia militia members and Kurdish Peshmerga forces taking part in the Mosul operation.

Ali Salah Hamid, a soldier with Iraqi special forces. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

The battle has been bloody.

Iraq's army will not release casualty information, but it's thought hundreds of soldiers have perished in the fighting.

"My closest childhood friend died in east Mosul in the last mission there," said Hamid.

If he were to count all of the friends who have been killed, "it would take an hour," he said.