Es­cap­ing an Is­lamic State bas­tion

An Iraqi man’s per­ilous trek from mil­i­tant-held Mo­sul to Baghdad via Syria, Turkey and a plane ride il­lus­trates ris­ing des­per­a­tion in the caliphate

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com

baghdad — For civil­ians leav­ing the Is­lamic State-ruled city of Mo­sul, the end­ing can be deadly.

Res­i­dents say that the city in north­ern Iraq has be­come a pri­son since the mil­i­tants seized it in June 2014 and im­posed bru­tal con­trol. The Iraqi cap­i­tal, Baghdad, once a drive of about six hours down the high­way, may as well be a for­eign coun­try.

One man’s story of es­cape sheds light on just how hard it has be­come to get out. The man — a former taxi driver in his late 20s — re­lied on smug­glers to cross through Syria to Turkey to fly to Baghdad: a 1,500-mile jour­ney to get to a place 250 miles away.

Smug­gling routes have be­come the only way out for those trapped in Mo­sul, the cap­i­tal of Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory in Iraq. As a grow­ing num­ber of Iraqis and hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans flee to Europe, the Is­lamic State is try­ing to pre­vent an ex­o­dus from its ter­ri­tory by tight­en­ing con­trols and re­leas­ing videos dis­parag­ing those who leave.

Eco­nomic cri­sis in its ci­ties af­ter Baghdad cut off salaries has also spurred des­per­ate civil­ians to try to get out.

Keep­ing civil­ians in its ter­ri­tory, how­ever, is an im­per­a­tive for the group, which draws con­sid­er­able rev­enue from tax­ing them. As well as gen­er­at­ing in­come, the civil­ians could be used as hu­man shields in the case of an as­sault on the city, while their de­par­ture tears at the group’s nar­ra­tive that its self-pro­claimed caliphate is a haven for the world’s Mus­lims.

Res­i­dents used to be granted per­mis­sion to leave for med­i­cal or busi­ness rea­sons, but that is now said to be rare. Some res­i­dents, most of the melderly, were al­lowed to leave on pil­grim­age to Saudi Ara­bia in Septem­ber, on the con­di­tion that they leave their prop­erty deeds as a guar­an­tee. But try­ing to leave with­out per­mis­sion can re­sult in ex­e­cu­tion, res­i­dents said.

Many take the risk any­way. Life in Mo­sul had be­come in­tol­er­a­ble, the former taxi driver said. Pub­lic pun­ish­ments are fre­quent. Peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing gay are thrown off build­ings to their deaths. The hands of ac­cused thieves are cut off and adul­ter­ers stoned. Smok­ers are lashed.

“I was fed up,” he said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause his rel­a­tives re­main in Mo­sul, and he fears that they could be pun­ished if the Is­lamic State finds out he has left. “You feel ner­vous all the time. There are so many rules.”

Since the cen­tral gov­ern­ment stopped pay­ing state em­ploy­ees in Mo­sul this year, one of the few sources of in­come for civil­ians has dried up. Teach­ers and doc­tors who re­main are forced to keep work­ing with­out pay. Jobs are hard to come by, and prices for ba­sic goods have climbed. Mean­while, the Is­lamic State’s rule has be­come steadily more op­pres­sive.

“It’s a big pri­son now,” said Suha Oda, a so­cial ac­tivist who used to live in Mo­sul and mon­i­tors the sit­u­a­tion there. She de­scribed the cut­ting off of salaries as a “death blow” to the civil­ians left in the city; they have long given up hope of a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in the near fu­ture to free Mo­sul.

She said that re­cently, a friend and her hus­band and child were caught try­ing to leave. “They were sold out by the driver that they’d paid to get them out,” she said.

They were de­tained and are back home in Mo­sul but live in fear of fur­ther pun­ish­ment. A cou­ple who tried to leave a month ear­lier were ex­e­cuted, Oda said.

The former taxi driver said he had wanted to leave Mo­sul ear­lier but stayed to look af­ter a sick rel­a­tive. He then heard that a friend of a friend had a rel­a­tive in the Is­lamic State who was tak­ing money on the side to get peo­ple out. He paid just un­der $1,000, putting him­self in the hands of a chain of smug­glers with lit­tle idea of where he would be taken.

“It wasn’t easy, be­cause if they found out I was plan­ning to leave, I would be killed,” he said. “If I sought out the wrong man or some­one in­formed on me, I’d be taken im­me­di­ately to be ex­e­cuted. It’s for­bid­den to leave Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory for in­fi­del ter­ri­tory.”

As a mem­ber of the Is­lamic State ap­pa­ra­tus, his smug­gler could eas­ily nav­i­gate check­points. There were ini­tially three peo­ple try­ing to leave in the group. But when they reached a safe house out­side of Mo­sul, two fam­i­lies joined, tak­ing the to­tal to about 11.

Af­ter five nights there, they were smug­gled to Turkey, through Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s strong­hold in Syria.

“We didn’t know where we were. It was my first time out­side of Iraq,” he said.

But travers­ing neigh­bor­ing Syria is one of the few ways out of the Iraqi city. Ear­lier in the sum­mer, one of the man’s rel­a­tives left by road to Baghdad via Iraq’s western prov­ince of An­bar, but that route in­volves cross­ing ac­tive front lines, and Mo­sul res­i­dents, vir­tu­ally all of whom are Sunni Mus­lims, say they also fear run­ning into Shi­ite mili­tias on the way.

“It’s dan­ger­ous. You’re on open land,” the former taxi driver said. “There’s bomb­ing. Many peo­ple get killed that way.”

Af­ter leav­ing Raqqa, he was passed on to a new set of smug­glers to be taken across the bor­der into Turkey, by which time the group be­ing smug­gled had swelled to 50 — mostly Syr­i­ans des­per­ate to leave their coun­try. The first time they tried to cross into Turkey, author­i­ties at the bor­der turned them back.

The sec­ond time, walk­ing in the foot­steps of their smug­gler through a mine­field, they made it. The Iraqi man said that get­ting to Turkey from Mo­sul had taken eight days. He then trav­eled to Ankara, the Turk­ish cap­i­tal, to turn him­self in at the Iraqi con­sulate. Then he waited more than a month to re­ceive a travel doc­u­ment to be able to board a flight back into Iraq. He had been given a “very hard time,” he said.

Iraqi Sun­nis from Mo­sul com­plain of dis­crim­i­na­tion by mostly Shi­ite Iraqi state of­fi­cials, who view them with sus­pi­cion.

When the man from Mo­sul fi­nally ar­rived in Baghdad in late Septem­ber, he was ar­rested. Be­fore be­ing bailed, he was de­tained for eight days and charged with leav­ing the coun­try il­le­gally.

“To get to my home­land af­ter all that and be ar­rested,” he said. “It’s like they don’t see us as Iraqi.”

FROM MIL­I­TANT WEB SITE VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An Is­lamic State mil­i­tant gives bags with sta­tionery and other gifts to pupils at a school in Mo­sul, in north­ern Iraq, in Jan­uary. Is­lamic State fight­ers seized the city in June 2014 and im­posed bru­tal con­trol over the pop­u­la­tion, driv­ing many to take the risk of at­tempt­ing an es­cape.

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