Nearly six years after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), the horrors endured by the city’s residents remain engraved in every woman, man, and child who lived through the atrocities having been affected by their ruthless violence.
As Saber*recounts his harrowing ordeal, he immediately reaches into his shirt pocket to retrieve his phone and begins searching for something. When he finds it, he angles the phone toward us so we can see a video personally delivered to him by members of IS.
“They executed 11 members of my family. This video shows their execution, except the execution of my sister which was not filmed,” explains Saber calmly, yet with a small knot in his throat. The video, which Saber shared with us during a meeting in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, carries the signature of IS’s filming production style with an aesthetic of contemporary Hollywood films and video games. There are compositing effects and whizzing motion graphics that show several men detained in cells, ankles shackled, and wearing orange prisoner jumpsuits. As we watch the video together, Saber points out some of the captives to tell us which of his relatives they are. His sister, her husband, and their 15-year-old son, along with other members of his family were all kidnapped and killed by IS.
For three years, Mosul was the heart of IS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate.” The violent extremist group, which attracted foreign fighters from many parts of the world, used terrifying levels of violence to subdue entire populations and minority groups across much of Iraq and Syria, including brutal punishments such as public executions and sexual violence and slavery.
When his relatives disappeared, it took Saber five months of searching to discover they had been detained by IS. All that time, Saber assumed his family members were killed in an airstrike or armed clashes. “Each week, I went around morgues trying to retrieve their bodies until I received the video,” he says.
While Saber survived IS’s tyranny, he was not spared from their violence. “They stormed my house, searching for my brother who they accused of being a secret agent. I was there when they came in,” recalls Saber. “They beat me up when I tried stopping them before throwing me from the second floor.”
By some miracle, Saber survived the fall, but broke both legs.
After this incident, and as airstrikes began hitting his district, Saber took his family and fled to Baghdad to seek refuge with his wife’s family. He only returned after the Iraqi security forces, with the support of the international coalition, retook control of Mosul in July 2017. Upon his return, Saber became a community leader in Mosul and was determined to take revenge. With the support of his community, he launched a campaign to expel all families of IS members and supporters.
“I gave them two hours to leave Mosul,” recalls Saber. About 70 families, made up mostly of women and children, were driven out of Mosul under the surveillance of the local police. Many of them, often described as “IS families,” were originally from Mosul. Since they had nowhere else to go, they had to seek refugee outside the city or stay in displacement camps. Their homes were emptied. Some were bulldozed and others given to residents who had lost their property in the battle.
“As a leader, I should have responded differently and not fix an injustice by creating another injustice. These families cannot be held responsible for what their husbands or brothers chose to do.”
After nearly two years, Saber begun attending awareness and technical training sessions hosted by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), to learn about the importance of protecting civilians from the impact of armed conflict and keeping communities together, especially in times of violence and instability.
“I progressively realized that I may have made a mistake by expelling these women and children,” says Saber. “As a leader, I should have responded differently and not fix an injustice by creating another injustice. These families cannot be held responsible for what their husbands or brothers chose to do.”
In 2020, Saber eventually accepted that these families could return to Mosul on certain conditions. In his capacity as a community leader in Mosul, Saber convened 13 other local leaders to determine the requirements that returning families would need to fulfil in order to return. They designed an eight-step procedure that each returning person would need to abide by. Among these requirements was an agreement that returning adults had to renounce their ties with any IS members and file a complaint against there is relatives, a process also known as “tabree’a” (disavowal) and/or “ikhbar” (denunciation). Another requirement for women married to IS members was to divorce their spouses in absentia. The returnees were also obligated to report to the police station on the 7th of each month for a fingerprint check. In addition, families could only return if a member of the community of Mosul accepted to serve as their guarantor.
About 50 families returned to Mosul. The remaining ones chose to stay away.
“I did what I did because I believe in the law. I believe in justice,” says Saber. “If I allow anger to take over, the social fabric of our community will be forever torn apart.”
After an initially slow start, reconstruction efforts in Mosul have finally progressed and an increased space for civic engagement has created opportunities for local residents and authorities to work together in rebuilding the city.
Even though, Saber has successfully initiated the return of dozens of displaced families perceived as formerly associated with IS, the lack of a comprehensive national strategy for the reintegration of these families has exacerbated fears within the local community in Mosul. Besides, despite efforts to improve relations between different ethno-religious groups in Mosul, mistrust and prejudice persist.
Saber continues to raise awareness among other community leaders about the importance of bringing communities back together after decades of wars and instability. “I worry about our youth and their future if we don’t recreate the unity within our communities. There has been enough suffering,” says Saber.
* Saber‘s real name was changed to preserve his anonymity.