My days have started with the same conversation for the past two months. One of my brothers asks: “Shall we check which roads are clear today?” Then the whole family begins to weigh up the risks of staying in Mosul or getting out before we are forced fully back into the stone age. We talk about it around the breakfast table, or as we sit in our living room, eyes glued to the television hoping that news of government formation in Baghdad or decisions in London or Washington to bomb means our nightmare will end. But every day it becomes clearer: our fate is not in our hands.
Since the fighters of Islamic State (Isis) swept into our city on 10 June, we have been living in a state of fear and limbo – fear of the brutality of Isis, and in limbo not knowing when, or if, the Iraqi government or international forces will push them out. Half a million people escaped on foot or by car in the first 48 hours, but more than a million of us remain.
All the main roads in and out are controlled by Isis. Trying to leave would mean crossing two of their checkpoints, where they can determine your fate. What is guaranteed is they will take anything precious in money or gold. They want you to leave with only the clothes on your back. I have already packed a suitcase of all my old photographs and letters. I could not bear to leave those behind.
But for now there is no leaving. The roads are too dangerous and my elderly diabetic father could not make it off road. We also hear rumours about Kurdish authorities not allowing young men through their checkpoints for fear they are Isis fighters in disguise. We cannot leave my brothers behind. We are in this together as a family.
I have had little interaction with Isis fighters – and plan to keep it that way if I can. But those I’ve seen on the streets of Mosul do not look like Iraqis. My brother has spoken to Moroccans, Afghans and Chechens at various checkpoints. They claim they are our “brothers”, but we will never accept them as such.
So I remain indoors to avoid them. The days are long and hot, with temperatures reaching 48C. The nights are worse.
I was born and raised in this city. Today it feels alien. I have worked all my life to be educated and enlightened, completed my BA and masters, and was close to completing my postgraduate studies when Isis struck. We had 40 students taking postgraduate classes, more than half female. From next month we will be barred from attending the university. All this education just to be forced back to the dark ages and a time of slavery by men with guns.
As women we must now also cover our faces – something I could have never imagined being imposed on me. We are no longer allowed to leave home without a male guardian. Men are expected to grow their beards. Never in the history of Iraq have we had such draconian laws. My one and only visit to the university came after Eid. That morning, I put on the abaya for the first time but I went in without covering my face. I met some friends and we joked nervously while an air of sadness hung around us. I have stopped worrying about the possibility of air strikes against Isis and the inevitable bombs falling on civilians. All I am fixated on is this face-covering that haunts me even in my sleep.
We hear of women taken by force by Isis men to become their “wives”. That is the biggest fear: that one day these faceless and nameless men will barge into our home and take me or one of my sisters. We don’t speak about it, as though speaking of our greatest fear may tempt fate. Then there are the rumours of young men being taken by force to join the ranks of Isis, of female genital mutilation, of “slave girls” sold in markets.
I have not seen or known anyone suffer such a terrible fate, but it is enough to instil crippling fear in our hearts; that is what Isis wants. Then there are the other reports of young brave men attacking Isis fighters, of the Iraqi army preparing an onslaught. These stories, true or not, allow us a fleeting moment of hope.
A jolt of reality hit me at the end of Ramadan when I went with my mother to buy an abaya and khimar (the face-cover for women). It was surreal to ask the shop owner, a man we had known for years, for khimars only to be told they had sold out – as if the face-cover had become the hottest fashion item. Like many things in Mosul these days, a farcical reminder of how absurd our reality has become.
What the shop did have was the khimar for little girls; yes, girls as young as 11 now have to cover their faces. A woman was there to buy her daughters their new “uniform” and both were crying hysterically, tugging at the ghastly black cloth to no avail. Their crying still rings in my ears.
The horrors of Isis are coupled with the mundane. Being under self-imposed house arrest, with many friends leaving the city and no expectations of going back to work or university, boredom encircles you. The mind-numbing routine of planning life around electricity cuts is not new. Under Saddam Hussein we lived with daily power cuts. These days we consider ourselves lucky with two or three hours of electricity. Groceries are bought from mule-drawn carts going door to door; a sight I never saw growing up in this once vibrant city. And yet all this pales in significance to the dark fear Isis has brought with it to Mosul.
Questions haunt us. What is our future? Will the Iraq government and the international community come to save us? Isis is forcing us either to go back to the dark ages or to leave. But for now, it is time to go back to finding out the latest news on the roads out.
Laila Ahmed is a pseudonym. The author is an Iraqi woman in her 30s living in Mosul. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.