Mosul, Asharq Al-Awsat—Two hundred and fifty miles (400 kilometers) to the north of Baghdad lies Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, Iraq’s second largest in terms of population and its economy. Despite currently being occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Asharq Al-Awsat recently managed to enter Mosul, or “the Mother of Two Springs” as it is often called due to its cool weather during the spring and autumn.
Fear is to some degree ever-present, and can frequently be seen on the faces of the city’s residents as they live their daily lives under the rule of the ISIS militants who have been in control of the city for the last six months. Though it is largely unspoken, the city has changed, and outwardly the coexistence between the different ethnicities and sects that once characterized life in the city has disappeared.
The remains are divided into two parts, the “left side” and the “right side” as the locals prefer to call them, by the River Tigris. However, as the biggest city controlled by a violent insurgent movement at war with two governments and an international coalition led by the US, living conditions have declined dramatically. The city suffers from extreme shortages of food and medical supplies and a soaring cost of living. The infrastructure is flimsy, and supplies of drinking water and electricity are both lacking.
ISIS’s radical militants have a heavy presence on Mosul’s streets, making sure civilians, particularly those over 18, do not join the tribes that have volunteered to take up arms against the Islamist group. In some areas of Mosul, ISIS militants go from door to door trying to recruit young men into its ranks, sometimes by coercion and sometimes by offering privileges and money. The city’s people, too, have changed, at least outwardly. Women are forced to wear full niqab and long black robes covering their entire bodies when they go outside. Some young men have taken to wearing the Afghan gear which has become popular among the city’s youth.
For some residents of the city, the latest period of uncertainty is not new. “I have been afraid for my children and the unknown destiny that awaits them for years,” Umm Younes, 53, told Asharq Al-Awsat. “After the campaigns of arrests the government forces carried out in the cities of Iraq during the sectarian tensions that followed the 2003 US invasion, now it is the turn of ISIS,” the woman, who works at Mosul’s pension department, added.
The lack of infrastructure in the city has forced people to improvise, and invent ways in order to meet their basic needs. “We collect rainwater for drinking and cooking,” Umm Younes said, adding that the rainwater is then boiled to make sure it is safe. “Firewood and oil stoves are our cooking tools. We used to read about the historic siege of Mosul [in 1107], now we are besieged by horror, death, hunger and need,” she said.
Education has also suffered, with students in the city unable to continue their university courses. “I could not leave [the city] to do my final exams in the Kurdistan region as announced by the central government,” said Omran, 20, an engineering student at the city’s university. After the fall of Mosul, the central government instructed university students from the city to sit their exams in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the fact that many could not get permission to leave from the city’s new rulers.
Omran said that he also fears arrest, and of being accused of collaboration with ISIS’s many enemies. “I am not even allowed to get on the roof of my house and [ISIS] militants have arrested a number of young men in Mosul under the pretext that they were using high places to transfer information to the government and the forces of the international coalition forces,” he said.
Understandably paranoid, ISIS has shut down mobile phone networks in Mosul, out of fear that some of the city’s residents would provide intelligence to the forces of Baghdad or the international coalition bombing it from the air. The Islamist group also bans people from the city’s high places for fear they may use satellite phones.
Despite the restrictions and the risks, the city’s residents nonetheless must struggle on as best they can. Abu Raad, who owns a small restaurant in central Mosul, said he has not closed his place because it is his only source of income and he has a large family to support. He complained about the soaring prices of basic materials. “The price of one gas cylinder has reached 75,000 Iraqi Dinars [65 US dollars] and prices of vegetables and fruits have more than doubled.”
Customers are also few and far between. “Most of the people have fled Mosul and many are afraid to leave their homes. I was forced to serve some Arab [ISIS] militants who park their cars and come to my restaurant with women carrying weapons,” he said.
When asked about the reason behind the increasing prices, Abu Raad said: “The only links between Mosul and the outside world is from across the Syrian border, which is under ISIS control. They bring food and other needs from the city of Raqqa. This is why prices have got very high.”
After speaking to the city’s people, Asharq Al-Awsat traveled to the north of the city, where the sound of bomb explosions from international airstrikes are much louder and closer, and the fact that Mosul is a city at war is impossible to ignore. For now, the city remains in the hands of ISIS despite the forces ranged against it, but not without cost. The exact number of casualties inflicted on ISIS is hard to gauge, and the real total is perhaps known only to the group itself. Nonetheless, eyewitnesses told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS has transferred dozens of their wounded and dead to Mosul after US-led airstrikes on the group’s positions in Sinjar and Tal Afar. Mosul’s residents doubtless hope that this is the closest that the war comes to their doorsteps. Given the importance both sides attach to the city, they are likely to be disappointed.