Behind enemy lines: inside an Isis town

  • Date August 13 2014
  • Publication The Times

When Isis fighters stormed into Iraq in June, bringing large swathes of the country under their control, Ahmed braced himself for the worst.

His Sunni village had previously been invaded by another extremist Sunni group, the Naqshbandi. His wife was already in niqab, in accordance with their strict interpretation of Islam. But when the black-clad fighters of the Islamic State, or Isis, rode in, everything changed. “Life has stopped dead,” said Ahmed (not his real name).

The jihadists’ first move was to take control of checkpoints, government buildings and the police station. They confiscated the town’s military equipment and raised their flag on a political leader’s house near Ahmed’s home, which they now use as a headquarters.

“I can see their black flag now,” he said bitterly, speaking by phone. “Theirs is the only house with a black flag.”

Ahmed thinks the presence of the flag on a residential building should serve as a clue to the enemy that Isis fighters are present, but so far this clue has been missed. An airstrike in the early hours of Sunday hit a house 500 metres away. The family that lives there escaped unharmed.

Much of the lore of Isis is built on strict discipline and medieval punishment. Ahmed has witnessed more of the latter: during Ramadan a militant was caught smoking. He was dragged to headquarters for punishment, and Ahmed, from his home nearby, says he heard the man screaming as his comrades beat him with a stick.

Ahmed recently picked up a flyer dictating the behaviour of Muslim women under Isis. “No woman is allowed to walk by herself without a husband or a close family member escorting her. No make-up is accepted, and those who violate this get punished severely.”

What that punishment may entail keeps Ahmed up at night. A few weeks ago a man was hauled into Isis headquarters handcuffed and blindfolded, and several days ago Ahmed saw two women make the same journey, hands bound behind them. Ahmed never saw them again.

Day-to-day life has become difficult. The food stamps provided by Baghdad for every Iraqi family have been cut off in Isis-controlled areas, so budgets are stretched. Shops are open, but with just three hours of electricity a day, supplies are limited. The streets are quiet: not only are there fewer people out walking, but there is no music. Isis forbids it.
Ahmed leaves the house for work at 6am each day, driving through five Isis checkpoints, facing aggressive questioning at each — but his ordeal isn’t over once the black flag gives way to territory controlled by Iraqi Kurdistan. “You go through all this and you get burnt by the peshmerga flame. More checkpoints, and they treat you the same way, because you come from Isis lines and you are a Sunni Arab,” he said.

Ahmed has sat for hours en route to the hospital with his ill mother. Some people have died on this same stretch of road, waiting to get to the hospital, and Ahmed worries for his wife, four months pregnant with their first child.

Ahmed is more angry than afraid. He takes tiny opportunities to spite his oppressors, like listening to quiet music on his mobile phone, ready to pretend to anyone who asks that he is taking a call.

And he dreams of breaking free.

“My dream is to go to Arbil and get in an American plane and tell the pilot: this is where the bad guys are. Make the distinction between the civilians and the bad guys, and tell him: ‘hey, let’s go’.”