HASSAN SHAM CAMP, IRAQI KURDISTAN —
In Mosul neighborhoods adjacent to areas controlled by Islamic State, the call to prayer from the militants’ mosques can be heard clearly.
So too, can increasingly desperate IS threats, says Ibrahim Inaimy, who was a farmer before the militants took over the city. Since then, like many of the people fleeing IS territories, he has been unemployed.
“Daesh knows this camp,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS, an insult to the militant group. “They used mosque microphones to say they plan to kill anyone who flees to this place.”
The Hassan Sham camp, about 25 kilometers from Mosul, is quickly filling up as several others in the area have done, with between 40 and 250 families arriving daily, according to aid workers.
Nearly 84,000 people have fled their homes since the Mosul offensive began in mid-October, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Barrage of threats
When the Iraqi Army moves into a neighborhood, many people run from the IS mortars and gunfire that continue until the army moves forward to their next position.
Others run simply because after two and half years of IS rule, they have no money, no food, and no conceivable way to survive.
But as IS retreats, say refugees, many families don’t have the chance to run. Militants have unleashed a barrage of threats against the population in recent days and weeks, and have forced families to move back with them as they run.
“They take families as armor in front of themselves,” says Raad, who was a taxi driver before IS. “They went house to house in my area threatening to kill anyone who would not flee with them.”
Mobile phones and beards
Under Islamic State rule, mobile phones are strictly prohibited and men are required to wear a specific style of beards. In areas outside of IS territory in Iraq, almost everyone has a phone and beards in the IS style are deeply out of fashion.
“When Iraqi forces came close to my neighborhood, Daesh said they would chop off the heads of anyone caught with a phone or shaving,” continues Raad.
IS militants often call shaved Iraqi men “Obama,” likening them to their archenemy, U.S. President Barack Obama, he adds.
In anticipation of escape, many men shave their beards, not wanting to look like they could be militants when they are on the outside. Mobile phones remain buried in gardens or hidden inside, lest they are accused of passing information to the army.
But like Raad, most people wait until they’ve escaped to use their phones or shave.
“It was a different face, and it was finally a good face,” he says, grinning, as he describes the first shave after his flight.
Former Iraqi police
Men who were Iraqi police officers before surviving IS, adds Ali Abdu Mohammad, are increasingly targets as the army moves forward. Many of his compatriots were slaughtered when IS moved in, but others took an oath to be “good Muslims,” and lived.
That oath, according to IS, was essentially a vow not to fight the militants, says Mohammad, a father of three.
But in the days leading up to the Iraqi Army’s arrival in his neighborhood last week, the militants rescinded the promise, saying they planned to kill all former Iraqi police. Like mobile phone owners, the militants were afraid former police officers would turn over information on IS to the Iraqi Army, he says.
“I shaved my face and hid for three days before the army took my area,” explains Mohammad.