EUROPE - When 14 Islamic State militants stormed his home, 22-year-old Mohammed was hiding.
His father and brother, both police officers under the Iraqi government, had already been killed.
“They asked my mom, ‘Where is Mohammed?' " he tells me a year and a half later in Europe. “She said I was at the gym.”
Collecting all the money he could find, Mohammed fled Mosul, disguised as an Islamic State fighter, blasting Quran readings on the car radio for authenticity.
Noticeably nervous in a city park, Mohammed asks me not to disclose his location or full name. His relatives are still in Iraq and risk death if he speaks out against the militant group.
“They have a catalog of killing in the ugliest ways ever,” he says. “Beheading, fires, drowning.”
Islamic State militants ban all contact with the outside world, but people sneak Internet usage to connect with loved ones on the outside. Besides the harsh rule of the extremist group, he says, life in Mosul is rapidly declining. People are hungry and have no more than three hours of water or electricity a day.
U.S.-led coalition bombs continue to fall on Mosul, and Mohammed's relatives say that while they are supposed to be aimed at Islamic State militants, they are hitting civilian targets. As we speak, he gets messages from relatives saying the university had been hit by a bomb and hundreds of people were thought to be dead, including cafeteria workers and students.
“For every Islamic State target they hit,” he explains, “They hit 10 civilian targets.”
The U.S. Defense Department has confirmed a limited number of civilian deaths — under 20 — but several activist groups, including AirWars, estimate the number could be closer to 2,000.
Executions in Mosul occur every few days, says Mohammed, an exercise that keeps people following IS rules publicly.
Strict dress codes include loose, long pants for men and full veils for women covering the eyes, hands and feet.
“If a man wears pants like these,” he says, tugging his fitted but not skin-tight jeans, “he is beaten.”
“What happens if you wore shorts?” I ask.
“It is cut,” he says, gesturing as if to chop off a head.
If a woman shows her face, or really any part of her body, her father or husband — who ever is in charge of her — is executed.
Other people are killed for their previous jobs — teachers, doctors, soldiers, police officers, writers and intellectuals.
“They have already killed anyone who had any power in the city,” he explains.
Also punishable by death is speaking any words against IS militants, who come from the U.S., Britain, Japan, Iraq, Syria and other countries. When they first swept into Mosul in 2014, some of the Islamic State fighters spoke only English, as far as Mohammed could tell.
Who's to blame?
Like many other Iraqis, Mohammed partly blames the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq for today’s troubles. When dictator Saddam Hussein fell, so, too, did the centrally controlled army.
And when Islamic State soldiers invaded Mosul more than a decade after the initial U.S. invasion, the Iraqi army fled, leaving their weapons behind. Mohammed — and many other people in the Arab world — see the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State as deeply suspicious. They want to know why, with all of its might and money, the U.S. can’t seem to win.
“America could stop the war in four days,” he says, repeating an oft-said refrain in the Middle East. “The whole world knows it’s all about politics.”
The U.S. and its allies have said from the beginning of the anti-IS campaign that defeating the group will take years, and its success is contingent on the help of regional governments.
But now living as a refugee, and with Iraqi and U.S. forces saying they are stepping up efforts to take back Mosul, hopefully by the end of the year, Mohammed can start thinking about his future.
He can, he says, but he won’t.
“They destroyed my dreams,” he explains.
We get up to leave the park. Mohammed bursts into laughter. He recalls he once dreamed of going to college to study the oil industry, an idea that seems to him now as ridiculously ambitious.
I ask him whom he blames. Islamic State, the U.S., the Iraqi army? He shrugs.
“Any person who touched blood,” he says.