As a nine-year-old boy, Ali and his ten-year-old brother, Ahmed, herded the family’s sheep away from their village on the endless, barren plains between Kirkuk and Tikrit in northern Iraq. The tenth child out of fifteen siblings, Ali would see the Hamrin Mountains in the distance and think of them as the end of the world.
Some twenty years later, his village overtaken by ISIS, Ali climbed those very mountains, carrying his six-month-old daughter in his arms, desperate to get back to freedom.
In the summer of 2010 I spent the night at a checkpoint guarded by Sunni militias outside of Kirkuk. After my translator had gone home, one of the men called his brother, Ali, who spoke fluent English and was working at another checkpoint. Ali came right away. (Ali’s name, as well as his brothers’, have been changed here to protect their family members living in ISIS-controlled territory.) The men debated whether Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the area would notice the presence of a foreigner, and Ali offered to spend the night there with me. He and the men would protect me if needed. Had I known Ali a little better, I would not have been surprised.
Ali’s family always had an antagonistic relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. One of his uncles, Satam Jibouri, attempted to kill Saddam in the 1980s and the entire tribe was punished for it. Ali grew up in a village with a few hundred mud houses, where he herded the family’s cattle, before going on to attend Tikrit University.
As Saddam’s regime fell after the U.S. invasion and Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government took over, things did not get much better for Ali’s family. Ali and his brother Hussein could only find work with the Sahwa, the local Sunni militia financed by the U.S. army to guard the Sunni tribal areas. Hussein, having worked for the army before, became an officer and received a government car. I asked Ali to work as my translator and he did this so meticulously that I suggested he should go study journalism in Kurdistan. He followed my suggestion. But with the advance of ISIS (‘Daesh’ as they are called in Iraq) it became increasingly difficult for him to cross the border towards Kurdistan, as people there are suspicious of Arabs coming over from elsewhere in Iraq, and often see them as potential terrorists. Two years ago, Ali, who’s now 32, returned to his village and became an English teacher. We kept in touch over the years, until the day ISIS arrived at his front door.
Last year, my series for Narratively, The Real People of Iraq, provided a look at the lives of everyday Iraqis as they struggled to survive in a country where war has become an endless reality. Needless to say life has not improved since. After a year of silence, Ali popped up on Skype again and I went to see him. I wanted to know what has happened to him, and I wanted to share the stories of others whose homes, streets and cities, had been taken by ISIS.
ISIS came to his village the same day Mosul fell, on June 13, 2014. The commanders of the Iraqi army fled, and as soon as they were gone soldiers changed into civilian clothes and deserted. In Ali’s village, just outside of the provincial town of Hawija, the soldiers were welcomed and found shelter. Ali immediately felt responsible for their safety. “Extremists are extremists; thugs are thugs, no matter what religion they belong to,” says Ali, who had just finished building his own house near the four houses where his brothers lived. He was determined to help these former soldiers safely return to their families and escape death at the hands of ISIS. It was risky though — those first few days they didn’t know who belonged to ISIS and who did not. Eventually, all “visitors” would make it home safe. Yet that was only the beginning.
Three days later, Ford police cars and Deer pickup trucks drove into his village in the middle of the day. They stopped in front of his brother Hussein’s house as Ali was eating a watermelon. Ali phoned Hussein, who was taking a nap in another room, and warned him. His brother was the only Sahwa officer in the family; Ali intuitively knew they were coming for him. As the men were approaching, they could see Hussein leave the house through the back. Ali slowly walked towards them, still eating his watermelon, trying to look perfectly normal. Ali believes that God has already decided what will happen, but confronted with ISIS he felt his heart racing. His wife, Huda, was three months pregnant. He wanted to live.
Some twenty men in dishdashas (traditional Arab ankle-length shirts), others in training suits, all covered in balaclavas and carrying guns, surrounded the compound. Still more stayed in the back of the pickup truck with their automatic assault rifle. Ali walked out halfway and met their leader, a tall man in a grey dishdasha. The man was carrying an AK-47 in front of his stomach. Ali noticed the safety was off. He could only see the man’s eyes.
“Where is Hussein?” the man inquired. “We need to talk to him.”
Ali said he didn’t know.
“Call him,” the man demanded.
“Aren’t you afraid?” asked the man.
“Yes, but I can’t give you my brother,” Ali explained.
“We’re Muslims, we’re no infidels,” the man said. “You can trust us.”
The man went on to demand weapons. Ali said they didn’t have any. A man in a white dishdasha insisted there were weapons. He was on the phone with — Ali started to realize — a source in the village, because the man kept insisting Ali and Hussein had weapons. Ali denied it.
He wasn’t lying. Despite working with the militia, Ali and Hussein never received weapons because the U.S. army didn’t fully trust this militia. Ali offered them Hussein’s car.
Another of Ali’s older brothers, Khamees, came out and invited the men into the family’s guest room. As they all went inside, Ali heard the man in the white dishdasha shout into the phone: “We can’t leave them, they raided our houses. We should kill them.”
They called Hussein’s wife in. She was trembling — she had heard the man in the white dishdasha. Khamees managed to calm the men down. They made Ali and his other brother, Ahmed, sign a contract swearing that they wouldn’t work for the Iraqi Army anymore. They handed over the car, but they knew the ISIS fighters would return back for Hussein.
The raid shocked everybody in the household, but most of all Ali’s mother, who fell during the commotion. She didn’t recover. They took her to several hospitals and eventually they learned she had cancer. With no access to proper treatment, she died a few months later.
Soon after ISIS took over, the electricity grid in and around Hawija went down. The power station was hit in the battle between Kurdish forces and ISIS. Next, ISIS stole the generators from the cell tower owned by Asiacell and Zain, the local telephone providers. From then on, there was no more cell coverage. One day Ali saw smoke coming from Baiji, the oil refinery, meaning ISIS had captured that too.
ISIS at first wanted to cancel all English classes, but as the organization depends on foreign fighters, they decided to keep English in the school curriculum. Ali was summoned back to resume teaching. They did drop geography — there was no point now that new borders were being redrawn. Physics was changed into a weapons-training class. Literature, poetry and drawing classes were dropped; they were haram (forbidden).
Many people left. It is only 50 miles to Kirkuk, which is controlled by Kurdish forces. In the beginning, they just had to pay a bribe at the checkpoint. Then it became harder to leave. They paid a huge fine to ISIS if captured and were shot dead if they tried a second time. Nowadays, no one is allowed to leave. Instead people started to flee through the Hamrin Mountains, which leads to a vast deserted region, some 30 miles from the village of Alam. (On January 10 of this year, some 54 families were caught by ISIS trying to cross the Hamrin Mountains — their whereabouts are still unknown.)
With no access to the outside world, the economy in the area came to a standstill. People had to live off only the land and their own livestock. Ali heard that ISIS knew he had worked for the Americans, and he spent many nights on the roof of his house, waiting for ISIS to come for him. When his mother passed away, Ali lost hope.
Then at the beginning of the New Year, Ali’s eighteen-year-old wife, Huda, went into labor. The hospital was giving priority to ISIS fighters so they couldn’t go there. Instead Ali found a midwife who helped women deliver their babies in a shed next to her house.
When they went to see the woman she told them they’d come too early and should come back later. They did, only to find the woman had closed for the night. After a grueling night, Huda delivered the next morning in a room without heating. Ali waited in the car outside with a friend, and as his friend kept talking, Ali kept praying, until his wife finally came out again — with a baby girl.
A year went by. Ali heard that all teachers were being sent to Mosul for a training course in Islamic beliefs. Ali didn’t want to have anything to do with ISIS. It was time to leave.
He started asking around. The day before the start of Ramadan, the brother-in-law of a teacher at his school, a woman named Nabiha, came to his house and offered help, on the condition he would take Nabiha and her two kids, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, with him. Her husband was waiting for her in Kirkuk. Smugglers would take them through the Hamrin Mountains and another smuggler on the other side would drive them to Alam, the nearest village, close to Tikrit. It would cost $600 U.S. per person.
The man offered to lend Ali the money and took him and his family to the guide’s house, in a village near the mountains. There were twenty people crammed inside the house in the searing heat, and Ali noticed the guides kept discussing among each other. He took one guide aside and heard from him that there were gangs in the mountains. Ali didn’t trust them and went back to his village. But his family had already taken stuff from his home and everybody had seen that; it was known that he had tried to leave. He realized he was in danger and that they really needed to go.
Six days later he tried again. A friend dropped them off at the foot of the mountain and gave Ali the phone number of a taxi driver from Alam who could pick them up on the other side.
As they left the car — Ali, his wife and daughter, along with Nabiha and her two children — Ali saw three silhouettes in the distance. They must be ISIS fighters, he thought. He ushered everybody to run into the mountains, but Nabiha slowed him down and told him she had a heart condition.
“And you only tell me this now?” he asked.
“Will you leave me behind now?” she asked.
“That’s not the point; you should have told me this before.”
They walked for seven hours in the hot air, Ali all the while carrying his six-month-old daughter Ethar in his arms. He didn’t want to go around the peaks; he would lose the way, so he just kept going upwards, following the sun, and eventually the moon. They didn’t see the three men again. But every time they reached the top of a peak, they saw another one ahead of them. It felt like walking into the ocean, with waves everywhere.
As the sun went down, he heard snakes hissing. “National Geographic should film here,” Ali said to himself. Unbeknownst to him, ISIS had also put land mines in the mountains to defend their territory, Ali would find out later, when a cousin tried to escape through the same route and was blown up. Many others who tried simply got lost.
They kept walking and eventually found their way to the other side of the mountains. Alam was still some 30 miles away. By now their water was gone, and the women and children were wailing from exhaustion. They begged Ali not to make them go on. They’d rather die there than walk any further. Looking around in the dark, Ali realized he had no idea where they were. His phone was working again, but how could he explain to the driver who was supposed to pick them up where to find them?
His battery was running low. He told Nabiha to shut off her phone, so they could save it as an emergency backup. “Which village did you see before you crossed the mountain?” the driver asked. Ali didn’t know. The crying women and children made him nervous. “Focus,” said the man. “Walk away from the women and children. What do you see?” On the right he saw the dark sky lit up. “That’s Baiji they’re bombing,” said the driver.
Ali had seen empty water bottles, destroyed army barracks, some cattle. But nothing he remembered could actually tell the man where they were. He gave up. Joking, out of desperation, he said: “I saw an electricity pole that had been cut off.” The taxi driver answered: “I know where you are. On your left you’ll see some shacks.” It was too dark; Ali couldn’t see a thing. The man told him he would come for them, but he would lose phone coverage on the way for about an hour. Ali waited for one hour and ten minutes, and then he called again. The driver’s phone was switched off.
A few minutes later the man called back. “We should be in the same place now.”
“I don’t see any lights, you must be somewhere else,” Ali said. The women and kids started sobbing again.
“I turned off my lights,” the man assured him. The driver told Ali to switch on his flashlight. “Point it eastwards. Not to the West, Daesh will see you.” Ali pointed the light in all directions. Finally the man said: “I see you.”
When he finally saw the driver, Ali sat down and cried.
“We went back to the Middle Ages,” Ali says, peeking from behind his nirgilla — a water pipe — in a Kirkuk café while he plays the popular online war came Clash of Clans on his phone.
Five months after his journey across the mountains, Ali is teaching English at a school in Kirkuk. He has avoided the battlefield, but if the Iraqi Army and allied forces try to reclaim power over his village, he says he will join the fight.
He’s changed, he tells me. Before, “I wanted to leave Iraq for a better place. Now I feel it is my duty to stay and make things right again.” He’s also disappointed in his own people.
“It is all about the weakest link and among my people there are those who joined Daesh,” Ali laments. “But I don’t believe Daesh is as strong anymore. The suicide attacks are different now. People who left their places to join Daesh can’t go back; they commit a suicide attack because they have nowhere to go.”
For the first time, I hear him speak of revenge. “In my village only one native family sided with Daesh, and a few families which moved there after 2003. We will burn down their houses once we take over. They cannot live amongst us anymore.”
Ali has not heard from his family for months. A new ISIS governor was put into place, a man from Saudi Arabia. He banned the Internet — and Iraq has no mail service. It’s not possible to wire money into the areas captured by ISIS. People are growing hungry. Ali’s older brother Khamees has already sold his cattle and car, but he can’t leave because it would mean leaving behind their disabled sister. Hussein managed to flee and is now working with a Sunni militia in Alam.
Ali’s other brother Ahmed was not as fortunate. He disappeared one month after Ali fled. People said he smiled on the street, on the day the Iraqi forces recaptured the oil refinery at Baiji, and was taken in for questioning. He was put into a prison house that was later bombed by allied forces. “Sometimes I dream about him,” says Ali. “I dream we cross the river together, the river we used to play in as kids, and he drowns.”