DRESDEN - “They can’t turn me down,” says 21-year-old Safaa, an Iraqi asylum seeker, after inquiring with German officials again about his next interview. “Most of my city has been destroyed.”
“I’m not worried,” he adds, smiling.
His friend, 27-year-old Ahmed, is also from Salah al-Din, an Iraqi province beset with both Islamic State militants and sectarian strife. While Safaa looks confident Germany will accept his application, his friend leans in quietly behind him and says to me in English: “Oh, he is worried. He’s worried.”
Seven months have passed since these men arrived in Germany, and they are no closer to knowing if or when they will be granted asylum - that is, legal refugee status. At a plaza outside the central train station in Dresden, they say Iraqi and U.S. escalation of the assault on IS won’t change their plans, whatever the outcome.
The U.S. announced Monday it would send 560 more troops to Iraq, many to be positioned at the edge of Sala al-Din province, 65 kilometers miles south of Mosul, in an effort to retake the largest city under IS control.
“It makes no difference to us who wins,” explains Ahmed in Dresden. He is wide-eyed and animated as he explains their dilemma. “If the Iraqi Army takes over and we go back, they will say, 'You are all with IS,' and kill us.”
In recent weeks, the Iraqi army, supported by the international coalition, has made gains, including retaking Fallujah, a city of nearly 300,000 people. The Iraqi army is bolstered by Shi'ite militias on the front lines that have been accused of killing Sunni residents after freeing areas from IS.
Urban violence spreads
Meanwhile, the violence appears to be spreading in urban areas. This month more than 300 people were killed by bombs in Baghdad, a city once deemed relatively safe. A car bombing in a Shi'ite neighborhood of the capital that killed at least 11 people Tuesday was the latest in a series of terror attacks aimed at civilians; the deadliest single attack since the U.S. invasion in 2003, a truck bombing that killed more than 290 people and wounded over 200 others, was on July 3.
Refugees who fled from Islamic State-held territory say the so-called “safe” parts of Iraq will never be safe for them, as long as the militants have the power to hunt them down. None of the young men at the Dresden rail station are willing to be photographed or identified by their full names, for fear their families will be killed if they are caught speaking against Islamic State.
“The world doesn’t know what is going on in Mosul,” says 21-year-old Omar, speaking in urgent tones. “They need to know.”
Life in Mosul is grim
Returning to Mosul under IS is a certain death sentence, Omar says as our conversation outside the train station continues. “It is forbidden to leave.”
When Islamic State fighters overran Mosul in 2014 they killed soldiers, police officers, government officials, Shi'ites and Christians. With all the militants’ “official” enemies now dead or outside the city, many people feel safer, Omar adds.
Young men, however, face the very real possibility of being forced to join Isis. “My parents and my sisters will be safe,” Omar says. “But young guys have to join.”
If the Iraqi army storms Mosul, some people fighting on the IS side will be doing so against their will, Ahmed says.
A bleak future
But as much as the refugees fear the fallout of a battle for Mosul, they also see no future for the city under IS rule.
It has been two years since many workers have been paid, because the Iraqi government stopped sending funds to the region when it became clear that would only benefit the Islamic State organization. People survive by following strict dress codes, refraining from smoking and avoiding saying anything bad about IS fighters.
The refugees say those left in Mosul are slowly slipping deeper and deeper into poverty. Mahmoud, a 19-year-old who fled Mosul in 2014, still keeps in touch with his family via social media; internet connections are banned but many families in the isolated city spend about $60 a month, a huge sum in Mosul, on illegal satellite connections.
“My whole family is there,” Mahmoud says. “And there’s no way out.”