Portrait of an Artist in an Endless War

After her father is murdered and ISIS rampages her hometown, a 22-year-old art student tries desperately to pick up the pieces.

Portrait of an Artist in an Endless War

Sarah was sitting on the sofa next to her mother and sister, drawing in pencil while her brother played on the floor beside them, when the TV suddenly caught their attention: ISIS was attacking their hometown, Mosul. A curfew for all residents was announced.

This was back on June 1, 2014 when Sarah, now 22, was a third-year art student. Many of her drawings show the face of a woman with long, dark hair, her eyes closed. (Sarah agreed to share her story, but declined to include her last name or have her photo taken, as she believes if ISIS finds out about this interview, they will kill her family.)

Sarah, who had been visiting her mother and siblings that day, called her husband, Nasser. She had wed her neighbors’ nephew in an arranged marriage two years earlier to avoid being married off to her cousin. Nasser was working as a paramedic in the Iraqi Army. He had just gone to his own mother’s house to take a rest when Sarah called him. He came over.

The fighting began far away, on the West Bank of the Tigris River — a poor neighborhood home to many ISIS sympathizers. Citizens there came out and joined ISIS in their fight against government troops. Soon Sarah and her family started hearing gunshots closer to their home on the East Bank. At night planes flew over their home and dropped bombs nearby. They couldn’t sleep. Sarah’s heart kept racing. She was sure terrorists would enter her home. It wouldn’t be the first time.

One winter night in 2008, when Sarah was fifteen, she was sleeping with her mother, three sisters and little brother, in the only room that had a bit of heating, when they awoke to loud gunshots. It was two in the morning. They ran to the living room. Sarah’s father was lying on the floor. His assailants ran away while Sarah’s gaze stayed fixed on her father. The whole family gathered around him but it was too late, he died on the spot. Only later did they find that the thugs had stolen all their gold — their father was a successful merchant and as there is no functioning bank system for civilians in Iraq, he had exchanged their money into gold.

As the bombing and shooting persisted in Mosul, Sarah replayed that night from six years earlier in her head again and again.

Drawings by Sarah fill her apartment.
Drawings by Sarah fill her apartment.

The Army and ISIS continued to fight for four days. Families fleeing the violence started crossing the bridge over the Tigris River to the East Bank, where Sarah’s mother lived. Her mother invited one refugee family in to take a rest. “They started to talk about what happened,” Sarah recalls. “The fighters were foreigners, they said.” Sarah listened to their stories, hoping half of it was not true. Mortars had burned the family’s home to the ground. They told stories of ISIS fighters going undercover, dressing up in Army and police clothes, then firing on soldiers. Army leaders quickly fled and the soldiers followed them.

Sarah’s husband called his friends in the Army every few hours. They kept assuring him that Mosul was still under government control. Until that is, the last phone call, when they told him army and police commanders were fleeing and ISIS had taken control of the city. Because of his service in the Army, it wasn’t safe for Nasser to stay in Mosul. After all the news they had heard of ISIS fighters kidnapping girls from other communities, Sarah’s mother feared for her two unmarried daughters. They decided they should all leave.

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Sarah is an Iraqi. She is used to violence, she’s used to fear. When one lives in fear, one doesn’t have ambitions or memories anymore. Life becomes flat. There’s only one focus: on the here and now. And right now, it is hard for Sarah to even want to remember those four horrible days and nights — or what came after.

They left their home at five the next morning. Sarah didn’t take anything with her. It was impossible to drive, so they walked: Sarah and her husband; her mother; Sarah’s sister and brother-in-law; their two younger sisters and their little brother. She saw bodies on the streets. Hands, legs, part of a head. All killed by mortars. Some seemed to be police; most were civilians. She also saw military clothes and guns on the ground, left there by members of the Iraqi Army as they fled. “They were still shooting,” Sarah remembers. “There were bodies and bombs everywhere.”

She couldn’t look at them. She was petrified and only weeks later, when a religious sheikh held his hand over her head and read a verse from the Koran, did she calm down again.

The shooting continued and the bodies and debris made it difficult to walk, but walk they did, that whole day, staying next to the river, journeying north, past destroyed houses, shattered glass, blood and death. At times Nasser would carry Sarah’s younger sister Nour, who was twelve, on his back.

When they approached the village of Wana, a man in a boat offered to take them across the Tigris, for 30,000 dinar — about $25. The boat was rundown and it was taking in water. He could only take three passengers at a time and Sarah had to help scoop the water out as they crossed. The rest of the family got into two other boats. They arrived in the town of Aski Mosul, or Old Mosul, in the afternoon. ISIS wasn’t there yet.

The ground was littered with glass that cut into her feet. When locals invited them in to take a rest, Sarah and her husband taped up her shoes, which were torn up by glass.

Next, Sarah’s uncles came and took them to their home in a small town some 40 miles from Mosul, called Tal Afar. Since then life has never returned to normal. “I left my dreams in Mosul,” Sarah says.

In the night they heard that ISIS now controlled all of Mosul. The new day only brought new sorrows. “We heard shooting again,” Sarah says. “We saw the men at the checkpoint of Tal Afar firing their guns. And so we started walking again.”

They were in no man’s land, still miles from safety. Because Sarah’s husband served in the Army, all those traveling with him risked being shot if they encountered ISIS fighters. Yet chances of him making it to safety were greater if he traveled with his wife and looked like a civilian. So Sarah decided to stay with him and they parted from her family. She hugged her mother, sisters and brother goodbye, hoping that she would catch up with them soon. She hasn’t seen them since.

She’s an Iraqi, she’s used to death, to pain. She can stand being without her family — but she cannot deal with the fear of not knowing how they are. Not knowing if she will ever see them again.

Sarah and Nasser took a back road they hoped the ISIS fighters wouldn’t know about. There were checkpoints everywhere. Luckily the checkpoints here were manned by foreign fighters who didn’t recognize Nasser. Walking back in the direction they came from, they passed Mosul and then Hawija, a small provincial town that had also been taken by ISIS. They were stopped at a checkpoint. The guards said they had a list in their computer of everyone who had served with the police or Army, so it was better to tell them upfront if you had worked for the enemy. Nasser confessed that he had. They asked him if he carried a gun. He explained he had been a paramedic, but they shouted at him to get out of the car. Then, they suddenly ran to another car: They had found someone they wanted even more. In the commotion, Sarah and Nasser drove on.

They arrived at a taxi garage in Kirkuk. Sarah was exhausted from the trip. She called her mother to find they had already crossed the border into Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and driven on to Sulaymaniyah. Sarah wanted to join them, but the Kurds had closed the checkpoint. She and Nasser were stuck in Kirkuk, on the wrong side of the border with Kurdistan.

A man, a Turkmen just like Sarah’s father, saw them sitting on the street and walked up to them. He asked where they were from and where they were going, and invited them to his house for the night. The next day, they went to the house of an acquaintance and stayed there for two days. It was only there that Sarah started to realize she wouldn’t be going home for some time. They found a house to rent — it was unfinished, there was no water or electricity and still the owner asked for 250,000 dinars a month (some $225). They accepted. Nasser went back to duty and didn’t come home for two weeks.

Sarah was a third-year art student when her family was attacked by ISIS. Now, she’s afraid to show her face in case ISIS finds out about this story.
Sarah was a third-year art student when her family was attacked by ISIS. Now, she’s afraid to show her face in case ISIS finds out about this story.

“I had been three months pregnant when the attacks began,” Sarah reveals.

“Once we started walking I got exhausted. I lost the baby in Kirkuk. I was alone when it happened.” She cries. “It feels good to cry,” she says.

She is an Iraqi. She is used to staying close to her family, sleeping in the same room with all of them when it is too cold or too hot or when relatives are visiting. She’s used to letting the rhythm of the day be decided by the needs of her family. It is paralyzing to be alone. To experience this void in time, in space, that will not be filled. To find no reason to get up or go to sleep. To spend her days waiting for things that are beyond her control.

Sarah’s mother and siblings stayed in Sulaymaniyah for a while, but the city was overrun by refugees. Being Arab in a Kurdish town, their possibilities of finding a job were limited. They had no source of income. As their options diminished, Sarah’s mother decided to take her family back to Mosul. She was tired of being a refugee and depending on others.

Going back to Mosul was easy. They breezed through the checkpoint and just drove right to their home. The doors had been opened, but the house had not been damaged. Sarah’s mother went to look at her daughter’s house on the West Bank. It had been looted and written on the wall was the word Murtd (apostate).

Leaving Mosul is a lot harder. You have to pay. They’ve seen other families leave. Sarah’s brother-in-law went to the checkpoint to ask. The ISIS members at the checkpoint told him it’s $1,000 per person — but prices change. At other times they have heard it is as much as $15,000 for a family. Sarah’s younger sisters and brother did not return to school. ISIS has changed the curriculum; they are teaching the students to kill and make bombs. Her mother decided to keep the children home.

When her mother passed Kirkuk on the way to Mosul, Sarah wasn’t there. She and Nasser had gone to Baghdad and on to Hilla in search of a better place. But with Nasser being away for weeks, leaving Sarah alone in a strange place, they eventually decided to return to Kirkuk, after her uncle and his family moved there.

Trying to get her focus back, Sarah took exams at the art institute in Kirkuk.
Trying to get her focus back, Sarah took exams at the art institute in Kirkuk.

Every morning when Sarah wakes up, she tries to reach her family. The mobile phone network was disconnected long ago, but there is still Internet. On days when there is no Internet, she worries something has happened to them. When there is Internet, they talk, but as soon as she hangs up, the worrying returns. When I try to get in touch with Sarah this March, she’s not keeping her appointments. Only later she explains: she’s had another miscarriage.

She is an Iraqi. There is no point of lingering on the past. She’s trying to get her focus. She took her exams at the Institute of Art in Kirkuk and still wants to become an artist. But she spends most days waiting — waiting for change, longing for her family. A new drawing, made with a grey pencil, shows the same woman as her earlier pieces, except now her eyes are wide open. She looks frightened.