‘I never imagined I would live through such moments of fear’ – Iraqi blogger Omar Muhammad discusses life under ISIS

Omar Muhammad exposed the crimes of ISIS in his home city of Mosul
Photo: Omar Muhammad

The City’s Cameron Weymes spoke to Omar Muhammad, an Iraqi researcher and historian who blogged about life under ISIS at great personal risk.

On June 6 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched an attack on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Within a few days, Iraqi government forces in the city — who vastly outnumbered the ISIS militants — capitulated in the face of the attack. 

Many Iraqi security forces were hanged, burned and crucified by the militants as ISIS overran their positions, while thousands of others were taken captive and later executed.

In addition, a huge portion of government security forces abandoned their uniforms and escaped among the civilians fleeing towards the neighbouring Kurdistan Region.

Mosul during rare snowfall, February 2020.
Photo: Twitter/Mosul Eye

In the midst of the chaos, one Mosul resident felt compelled to document the events that were unfolding.

Omar Muhammad was a researcher in the study of Orientalism at the University of Mosul at the time of the attack. 

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mosul had become a hotbed of jihadist activity and had seen hundreds of terrorist attacks. 

However, in early June 2014, as ISIS were establishing control over the city, Omar sensed he was witnessing something exceptional.

“I witnessed the offensive on Mosul by ISIS, as my neighbourhood was one of the first areas to come under attack,” he said, in a phone call with TheCity.ie.

“When I saw their equipment, uniform and organization, I realised that everything was different this time. Within three days of taking power, a highly organized administration was running the city, including a religious police and a Ministry of Finance among others. In addition, their banners were visible everywhere.”

ISIS banner in eastern Mosul. January 30 2017.
Photo: Cameron Weymes

“This told me that the occupation by ISIS was different from what happened before and was a turning point in the history of Mosul, so I decided to start documenting what was happening.

“I thought we shouldn’t lose what was happening in Mosul. Life in the city had to be documented, not by ISIS or outsiders, but by the people themselves.”

Omar decided to set up a blog under the pseudonym ‘Mosul Eye’, and began writing about the chaotic first few weeks under ISIS rule. 

Early blog post topics include the establishment of ISIS checkpoints in the city, the destruction of statues, emptying of prisons and the general state of panic among the population.

Despite ISIS’ notorious reputation, Omar wasn’t immediately aware of the danger involved in his actions.

“To be honest, I didn’t feel the risk in the early days. It wasn’t until one month in that I realised the danger when ISIS implemented a charter outlining the manner in which they would rule the city.

“All of these new regulations were implemented: the genocide against the Yazidis, the deportations of the Christians. The killing of anyone who didn’t follow their rules.” 

A church ransacked by ISIS in Bashiqa, north east of Mosul, December 2016.
Photo: Cameron Weymes

On June 17, the ISIS administration called for a meeting with staff at the University of Mosul, which Omar attended. The ISIS member who led the meeting was familiar to Omar, he had been a PHD candidate in economics at the university.

“He said the university would be shut down until they recreated the entire education system. In future the only goal of education would be to create a Muslim fighter (mujahid) who knows how to fight the enemies of ISIS.

“This speech stuck in my mind for a long time afterwards. It was a very sensitive moment for me. I thought, what am I going to do? Should I continue?

“I decided to stop, I didn’t want to be part of this machine that was manipulating the minds of the people.”

For the next two and a half years, Omar would live under ISIS rule. He continuously documented events in the city such as public executions and US-led coalition bombings.

The entrance to Mosul University, where Omar was a research student, January 30 2017.
Photo: Cameron Weymes

With ISIS high in the international news agenda at the time and their territory completely inaccessible to outsiders; Omar’s blog became a valuable source for news outlets around the world, including the New York Times.

However, the stresses of living under ISIS while secretly exposing the nature of their rule to the world began to take a toll on Omar.

“Everything at that time was about death because I might get killed at any moment. Nothing was about life. I had to prepare for my own death and to ensure my family would not be punished for my actions.”

“What I’m saying now does not capture the reality of the events. What I saw is beyond my comprehension or imagination. I never imagined I would live through such moments of fear.”

The struggle to rebuild

In October 2016, the Iraqi government and its allies began a campaign to retake the city from ISIS. After a brutal nine month battle, the city was declared liberated. 

Iraqi Federal Police during the battle for western Mosul, April 8 2017.
Photo: Cameron Weymes

For Omar and many of the city’s residents, the battle to rebuild the city had already begun. 

“When half of the city had been liberated, we organized a musical to convey a positive message to the people. This contributed to the process of civil action in the city.

“Subsequently, there were campaigns to restore Mosul University’s library, to clean the streets of rubble and to rebuild public spaces.”

In the aftermath of the battle, the Iraqi government — who had lost the city without a fight and caused a great deal of damage in its liberation — took a back seat in the rebuilding process. 

In the absence of government help, many Mosul residents took the initiative to rebuild their homes and businesses.

“The vast majority of the reconstruction in Mosul has been done by international organizations and the people of Mosul themselves.

“However, international organizations didn’t do enough. They didn’t have a grand strategy, but were following divided goals according to each particular organization. For example, one group would focus on minorities, another on schools. Most of the focus was on the east side, while the most damaged part of the city — the west — was left largely neglected.

“Even with all of these reconstruction efforts, we still lack basic infrastructure,” added Omar. 

“Hospitals are a huge concern now with the outbreak of coronavirus in Iraq. What are we going to do if we don’t even have a health care system?”

“We are lacking adequate roads, bridges and schools. When you consider this, you will see that the place is still suffering and you can’t call it a recovered city.”

In addition, local businesses are being hindered by the presence of Iranian backed militias — known as Hashd al-Shaabi — who helped liberate the city.

The militias are demanding protection money from business owners and have a hand in much of the commercial activity around the city.

Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen pose for a photo during the Battle of Mosul, January 30 2017.
Photo: Cameron Weymes

“We call the economic centre of the city ‘the Wall Street of Mosul’. It’s where all the money is, you can find a goldsmith’s market and currency exchange there.

“The problem is that the militias have taken over markets like these and are now controlling the economy.”

Hope for the future

Mosul and its neighbouring towns are among the most ethnically diverse in the region, and are home to Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis.

Trust among the communities has broken down after years of sectarian warfare since the US invasion.

In the aftermath of ISIS, Omar sees a glimmer of hope.

“It is in a very early stage, but conversations between Mosul’s different communities have reached a peaceful level I would say. Although it will take more time to generate a better kind of communication.

Rebuilding Mosul University’s library.
Photo: Mosul Eye

“The reconstruction of the two churches in the city of Mosul is helping bring back the confidence and trust of the Christian community,” said Omar.

“The rebuilding of the iconic al-Nuri Mosque is an important project, which will serve as a social and economic hub for the surrounding area.

“The town of Bashiqa on Mosul’s outskirts has recently seen a return of its Yazidi population. It is serving as a mediator between the people of Mosul and the wider Yazidi community {in the aftermath of the ISIS-led genocide against them}.

“Another challenge is whether these people can feel safe again in the city of Mosul.

“Is the fear of ISIS gone or not? I wouldn’t say yes, because people are still afraid of them coming back or the {Iranian backed} militias making more problems in the city. 

“But I have hope, despite all of the problems I have mentioned. I have to say that I’m very optimistic about Mosul. Many important social problems have changed, and we have found many solutions,” he added.

“This is my city, I love Mosul more than anything else.”

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