100 days into military operations to liberate Mosul from ISIL, IOM interviewed survivors.
Iraq - At the end of each day Farah religiously deleted all text messages, names and numbers from her phone. She then wrapped her SIM card with cling film and squeezed it into the seal of her bathroom window sill, writes Hala Jaber.
“I always thought that was the best place to hide it, in case they (ISIL) came to search the house. I felt I would have enough time to first run to the toilet and flush it down,” she said.
She protected another spare SIM-card like a valuable piece of jewelry. It was wrapped in cling film and stuffed inside a meat kibbeh (patty), which she kept in the freezer.
Farah’s need for secrecy was not because she was transmitting secrets or sending coded messages to the enemy.
She was simply trying to survive after an ISIL decree banned everyone in Mosul from using or even carrying a mobile phone.
“Anyone caught with a mobile telephone in their home or car was automatically executed,” Farah said.
But for Farah, who was trapped inside Mosul under ISIL, and Khaled, her husband of 20 years, who was on the outside, radio silence between them was not an option, regardless of the risk.
The couple designed a method to stay in touch without being detected. So for nearly a year they secretly communicated through the internet using Tango, a social media app.
The process was fraught with danger. ISIL had prohibited the use of all mobile phones. Anyone caught with one would automatically be charged with conspiring with the Iraqi government and face execution.
A friend of the family was executed with four shots to the head for possession of a phone.
But the daily calls were vital for Khaled to know his wife was safe, and for Farah to maintain a semblance of normality in Mosul, where nothing was normal any more.
Through these secret phone calls, Farah and Khaled shared the events of their lives, discussed their fears, speculated about the future, and longed for the day when Mosul would be freed from ISIL and the family would be reunited.
Khaled escaped Mosul two and a half year years ago, following threats from ISIL. But his family, including his wife, were trapped in the city. Farah had stayed behind to care for her sick mother, who died eight months later.
When Farah’s mother died in 2015, ISIL was in full control of the city and had imposed strict religious rules, with zero tolerance for dissent, frequently executing people for the slightest disobedience.
“After my mother passed away, it became nearly impossible for me to leave,” Farah explained.
Instead she stayed put at home, avoiding being caught on the streets without her husband, and keeping their home safe from ISIL looters.
“Many people decided to stay put simply to protect their properties and livelihoods from ISIL,” she said.
Many parents also removed children from school to prevent them learning the ISIL-imposed curriculum and to avoid them from being recruited by ISIL and sent on suicide missions.
Now most Mosul children have been without schooling for the past two and a half years.
Life for the family and for tens of thousands of others caught in the besieged city was difficult. But they managed to survive under the rule of the militants.
When the Iraqi military began their operation on 17 October 2016 to take the eastern part of the city, Khaled was optimistic that Farah and the family’s ordeal might be ending.
That hope was still there, until dawn of 6 January 2017, when three houses were struck by shelling that killed 18 men, women and children, among them members of Khaled and Farah’s family.
Khaled first heard of the deaths on social media. A relative in the besieged city confirmed the tragic loss.
In one moment Khaled had lost his sister, her husband and a young nephew. Somehow, his sister’s two other children miraculously survived.
With no access to cemeteries due to the constant barrage, Khaled’s father arranged for the bodies to be buried in the garden of his house.
Neighbors, uncles and Khaled's sisters two surviving sons spent the cold winter morning feverishly removing the dead, including Khaled’s mother, father and sister from under the rubble with nothing but their bare hands.
In the afternoon, they dug a large hole in the garden where they laid to rest those killed. They included the remains of 18 victims, including Khaled’s family: children piled atop the bodies of their mothers; husbands arranged at their sides.
As military operations intensified, things got progressively harder for Farah and others caught inside Mosul. When the fighting approached Farah’s neighborhood - and the daily bombardment escalated - she decided it was time to leave. She had seen enough death.
“Two and a half years under ISIL were bad enough, then came the military operations and things just got worse for all of us,” she said, explaining the added difficulties the family endured.
The Iraqi government, the UN and humanitarian agencies have expressed serious concern for those still trapped in the city under ISIL and, in particular, the estimated 750,000 civilians caught in western sector of Mosul.
The military is expecting a tougher battle for the west of the city as indications show ISIL digging in to defend their main bastion in Iraq.
IOM Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss said: “As humanitarian operations extend farther into East Mosul, we are getting a clear picture of the intense suffering of civilians over the last two and a half years, which underscores our deep concern for those who remain trapped and in danger inside West Mosul.”
Many people have reportedly been killed while trying to escape. Dozens of others arrive each day at hospitals on the outskirts of the city.
Trenches around the city have been dug and mined, and snipers have been positioned on main cross routes to prevent people from fleeing. Houses and government buildings have been booby-trapped and streets mined with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosives.
Food supplies and medicines have become scarce. Water and power supplies are almost a thing of the past, as routes and bridges were cut off to prevent ISIL from replenishing militants.
Up until last week, Mosul was still receiving two hours of power a day.
The markets are almost empty of fresh produce and what is available is extremely expensive. People are relying on wood for both cooking and heating, because of the high cost of kerosene, which is now selling at USD 95 per 20 liters.
Each neighborhood receives water once a week at different times to fill up their tanks, but this is not enough. “People have dug wells in their yards or back gardens to get water, even if it is dirty. Gas cylinders used for cooking are scare or massively expensive, so many people are using wood to cook,” Farah explained.
Yesterday reports to IOM from inside Mosul’s western sector spoke of damage caused to the power and water supply lines, resulting in both services being cut, including to the emergency services.
“This is terrifying us, as it spells a looming disaster with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” said the source, who smuggled a message out.
To avenge the retaking of East Mosul, ISIL in the last few days have also destroyed the two main water stations, which supply more than 75 percent of East Mosul.
The homes of those who left the west to stay with relatives in the east, at the onset of the military operation, have been confiscated by ISIL, according to the same source from inside the city.
With cash flow dwindling amongst residents, “some families are bordering on starvation,” Farah noted.
Cancer patients, those needing dialysis and those with acute diabetics are all unable to access clinics and hospitals. There is also a severe shortage of medicines.
“We know of diabetic patients who suffered heart attacks and died from the increase in their blood sugar levels. Others died from lack of medicines needed for chronic illnesses,” Farah said quietly.
“Movement is restricted as a result of the bombings and those dying are simply being temporarily buried in their back gardens,” she added, looking at Khaled.
The nights, she said, were the most terrifying. Going to bed and trying to sleep, not knowing if the family would survive or be found buried under the rubble the following morning.
“At night we yearned for morning to ensure we were still alive. With the stillness of the night we could hear the whizz of every bullet and the thunderous roar of each rocket or boom of a missile. We could even hear the clear shouts coming from ISIL militants at as they fired a rocket, realizing they were hidden in the alleyways of our neighborhoods, endangering all of us. It was terrifying,” Farah said.
One morning two weeks ago, Farah joined others from her neighborhood to escape the area. She made it to safety after walking for nearly eight hours. A few days later, Iraqi military special forces took that part of Eastern Mosul.
Farah was one of the lucky ones who made it out alive and was reunited with her husband. Many others are being held as human shields by ISIL and snipers are shooting at anyone caught fleeing.
In Hay al-Zuhoor, Mohammed and his wife, another couple who escaped, were smiling as they bought a bag full of bananas, tomatoes and oranges, produce they said they had not been able to purchase in the last few months.
Mohammed, was feeling double fortunate last week when IOM met him. Not only had his neighborhood been freed by the Iraqi military, but he had survived 14 months in an underground ISIL prison with five children, sentenced to death, merely for having been a policeman.
He spoke of seeing men, women and children imprisoned, beaten and tortured in jail.
He was freed when his area was taken by Iraqi troops last week. "We saw things we have never seen before and hopefully won’t ever see again,” he said.
“Our sadness for what this beautiful city endured is not only limited to those who lost their lives. A lot of it is also for the city known for its 3000 years of civilization and now destroyed,” Farah said.
For Khaled, the joy of reuniting with his wife Farah is tinged with bitter sweet memories of the loved ones now buried in his father’s garden, and for two nephews who survived, but continue to be trapped under ISIL in West Mosul.