The flight from Mosul: “We left everything behind to save our lives”

By Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.

Marvin is a 27-year-old accountant. His life and that of his family were turned upside down last week, when members of the Islamic State (ISIS) turned up at their home in Mosul, northern Iraq.

The ISIS militants who now control the city gave Marvin, his elderly parents and his brother and sister four stark choices: convert to Islam, pay jizya (a tax for non-Muslims), leave the city … or have their heads cut off. The militants then painted the Arabic letter “N” (for nasrani or Christian) on the house.

For Marvin’s family, like many other Christian residents of Mosul, there was no choice. They took a few belongings and left the city early the following morning. “On our way out of Mosul, ISIS took our money and jewellery. Now we have no means to get out of Iraq and nothing to go back to in Mosul because our lives there have been destroyed,” Marvin told Amnesty International.

In recent weeks, Marvin’s story has become tragically common among Christians and other civilians in Mosul.

Abu Yussef’s family was also similarly forced to leave after they found the letter “N” painted on their house. He and his wife, Hanaa, took their child and a few belongings and fled to Qaraqosh, a mainly Christian town 30 minutes east of Mosul under the control of the Kurdish peshmerga forces which are preventing ISIS from advancing further east.

Hanaa was a doctor in a health centre in Mosul before ISIS stormed the city. She said: “We left everything behind to save our lives. Our children are now so scared they wake up crying in the night. We want to leave Iraq for the future of our children. Life has become impossible here. All we built has gone and we cannot live our lives again in Mosul. ISIS has stolen our lives.”

Threats and attacks

For weeks before Christians had been fearing that their future in Mosul would be threatened. When I visited the city two weeks after the ISIS takeover on 10 June, threats and attacks against the Christian community were already on the rise. Many had fled, along with members of other religious and ethnic communities.

Many of the city’s residents told me about their fears, though some tried to remain hopeful—partly because the likely prospects were too awful to contemplate. Many argued that ISIS had taken advantage of the grievances of the majority Sunni population against the sectarian and repressive rule of the central government but that it could not remain in control of the city and impose its brutal rule on a population of close to two million.

They believed that while ISIS’ takeover of Mosul and other areas had not been opposed—and had even been supported –by powerful Sunni tribes and other groups which used to enjoy power as part of the Baath party of the late dictator, Saddam Hussein, these groups would keep ISIS at bay. Yet it was clear that life in Mosul was becoming too dangerous for Christians and other non-Sunni communities, as well as for Sunni Muslims opposed to ISIS.

ISIS militants had taken down a statue of the Virgin Mary from the top of one of Mosul’s churches, a clear sign that worse was to come for the Christian community. As clashes broke out between Mosul-based militants and Kurdish peshmerga on the eastern outskirts of the city on the evening of 25 June, the entire population of the nearby Christian town of Qaraqosh fled in panic.
Some had already fled from Mosul and were sheltering there. It was their second terrifying displacement in two weeks.

In al-Qosh, two hours north of Mosul, Lara, a mother of four young children, told me: “We left Mosul with nothing, thinking it was just for a few days. Now we are fleeing again and I don’t see how we could go back home. I don’t have another home, I don’t have another country. What will the future be for us?Extreme brutality

ISIS now controls a vast area of north-west Iraq, all the way to and across the Syrian border. And it is replicating in Iraq the extreme brutality of its rule in the parts of Syria it controls.

Its capacity to terrorise the civilian population has been greatly enhanced by the weapons it captured in the areas it took over—weapons supplied in 2003 to the Iraqi central government by the US-led multinational force, which failed to ensure that the mechanisms were in place to avoid such a not-so-unlikely eventuality.

It is now the responsibility of the international community—notably members of the “coalition of the willing” which marched into Iraq without a UN mandate just over a decade ago—to step up to the challenge. They must urgently assist the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been forced from their homes and whose lives have been destroyed.

For people like Marvin, Abu Yussef, Hanaa, Lara and thousands of others, the prospect of surviving without any assistance is just too terrifying to contemplate.

This blog was originally published in Open Democracy.