“Everything is depressed there. Everything.”
The chemical engineer escaped on a moonless night, fleeing from ISIS-held territory. As he crossed the front line, ISIS sentries shot at him. When he reached the other side, Iraqi soldiers also fired in his direction again—before allowing him to cross to safety.
Like hundreds of thousands of other civilians in Iraq, the engineer had been trapped by ISIS militants, unable to the leave the small town where he lived in the countryside south of the city of Mosul. Two years after ISIS seized vast sections of Iraqi territory, the military operations to dislodge ISIS from Iraq’s cities are unfolding at a slow pace, hampered by political gridlock and constrained by the Iraqi army’s thin ranks. The quagmire leaves ordinary Iraqis still living in ISIS-occupied areas at an agonizing crossroads: either stay under the suffocating rule of the extremists, or risk a potentially lethal crossing to territory held by the central government or northern Iraq’s Kurdish administration.
Those who remain in ISIS-held territory face a bleak present and a worse future. At the Debaga Camp for displaced people near the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour, single men and families who recently left ISIS-controlled villages south of Mosul described a world where most ordinary social life ceased to exist and the economy had come to a standstill. They said the jihadists banned cafes, smoking, cellphones and satellite television. Without jobs and denied ordinary sources of entertainment, residents struggled to find something to fill the empty hours—without falling afoul of the jihadists.
“We have no jobs, no work, no companies. You have to sit at home,” says Ayman, the chemical engineer. (His name has been changed, and certain details of his story have been withheld in order to protect his family from reprisal.) “If you want to go out you have to have a big beard and short trousers. Women should be totally covered in black.” The punishment for an infraction of any of these rules, he went on, could range from a fine to a beating, or worse.
Ayman hails from a small town south of Mosul, not far from the oil town of Qayyarah, which is also home to an air base that was seized and then used by the U.S. military following the 2003 invasion. The base and the town were seized by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Ayman had planned his escape for months, ultimately leaving behind his wife and young children in hopes of raising the money to smuggle his family out to join him. He had actually escaped once before, reaching Turkey in 2014, a few months after ISIS arrived. He found an apartment in Istanbul and then returned to Iraq, planning to take his family out of the country. But ISIS tightened restrictions on civilians under their control, blocking his exit from the country. Ayman was trapped, along with his family and neighbors, under the jihadists’ infant experiment in fundamentalist rule.