Mosul – Men, women and children walk down a main road in west Mosul with arms full and carts loaded, but they are not among the people fleeing fighting in the city.
The operation to retake Mosul from ISIS has pushed hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes – leaving behind belongings they could not carry and that are vulnerable to theft.
“It was ISIS’s! Shouldn’t we take revenge on them?” one of two young men – each carrying a ceiling fan on one shoulder and a bundle on the other – said, after being stopped by soldiers.
“My house has been looted, we have nothing!”
“You want revenge? If you’re brave, take a gun, the front is right there,” a soldier replied, pointing in the direction of the sound of gunfire and explosions.
“You stole it from the houses of other people,” the soldier said, ordering them to “return it the place where you took it.”
“It was ISIS’s, I swear to God! People took chairs, tables. We just took clothes – we don’t have clothes anymore,” the young man said.
“Are you not ashamed? Are you not Muslims? Go! Bring it back to where you took it,” the soldier said.
There was no violence between people in the al-Rifai area, which was recaptured by Iraqi forces a few days earlier.
They simply came and went peacefully with some arriving with empty hands and leaving with full bags or carts loaded with a refrigerator or sofa.
“All these people are not from here,” a man with a bicycle indignantly told a policeman.
With fighting raging a few hundred meters away, security forces controlled the comings and goings as best they can.
But, according to AFP, it was difficult to systematically check if people owned what they were carrying.
In some cases, people had items that were obviously not high on the list of essentials for someone fleeing a war: the young men with the fans, a teenager with a couch protruding from his wagon, a boy pushing a table with wheels.
Some were turned back by security forces, but others slipped through.
Most justified their actions by saying they were taking items that belonged to members of ISIS, which itself confiscated property including homes and vehicles during its nearly three-year rule of Mosul.
“It’s a lie. ISIS can’t access buildings,” said Abbas Ali, a policeman. “They come from other neighborhoods to steal from the houses.”
Others honestly said their houses have been looted and that they came to find items to refurnish them.
“They say they have nothing but it doesn’t justify stealing the belongings of others. These are the houses of people who fled,” Ali said.
“They are stopped and told to bring the belongings back where they found them. What more can we do?”
A boy passed by dragging a plastic container stuffed with a curtain that, when lifted up by police, revealed hidden metal cables.
Ali confronted the boy: “Are these not electrical cables? When the people come back, will they not want electricity?”
“I found them already cut, by God,” the boy said, intimidated.
“Return them to their place,” the policeman ordered. “It’s your city that you’re looting!”