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Escape From Mosul: Why Civilians Risk Everything To Flee IS-Held City

Iraqis seeking to escape IS-controlled Mosul hope to make it to Iraqi Kurdistan, like the family pictured above, and then on to Turkey.
Iraqis seeking to escape IS-controlled Mosul hope to make it to Iraqi Kurdistan, like the family pictured above, and then on to Turkey.

Mosul resident Khalid al-Mosuli has sold his furniture to raise the cash to pay human traffickers who will help him and his family to escape the city, which is controlled by Islamic State (IS) militants.

He says the traffickers have made arrangements with certain IS militants who are willing to close their eyes and let people leave Mosul.

"If we pay them enough money," Khalid adds.

The trafficking network is a mix of criminals, "professionals" who have been involved with the illegal trafficking of goods and people for some time, former officials -- and even some IS militants looking to make some money.

For Khalid, a father of three, paying the traffickers is very expensive. The going rate is $1,000 per person.

And if IS catches him, Khalid will pay for his attempted escape with something far more valuable than money. The extremist gunmen will almost certainly kill him -- and probably his family, too.

But the danger and the expense are worth it to get out of IS-controlled Mosul. "Mosul is turning into a city of hell because of IS," Khalid says.

The names of Khalid and other Mosul residents interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their identities.

You Can't Just Run Away

IS has developed a thorough system of control that prevents Mosul residents from leaving their hometown, which the militants seized in June 2014 during their sweep across northern Iraq and Syria.

Since last year, anyone wishing to travel outside Mosul has to undergo a lengthy bureaucratic process to obtain approval.

To ensure those who are granted permission to leave don't simply stay away permanently, anyone leaving Mosul has to appoint a "guarantor" inside the city, usually a family member who can vouchsafe their return -- or face dire consequences.

The traveler must also put up material collateral, like a home or a car, that IS can confiscate if they do not return.

'Like A Prison'

But the terrible conditions in IS-controlled Mosul, and an increasing sense of hopelessness and abandonment by the world, are driving residents to risk everything to escape.

"Mosul nowadays is like a big prison. We have nothing. No money, no jobs and no life in general," is how Umm Muhammad, a woman living in Mosul, describes conditions in the once flourishing city.

"Although I love my city, I would be willing to leave it with my children if only I had enough money," Umm Muhammad says, adding that she believes the Iraqi government and the international community have abandoned Mosul. "It's as if they have a deal with IS to destroy this city and its people."

On top of the horrors of daily life under IS brutality, most Mosul residents are struggling financially because they have not received salaries for several months.

"I go to work every day but I don't get anything," admits Khalid, who says that to find money to pay smugglers he has had to borrow money from his relatives as well as sell his belongings.

'We Were So Afraid'

While some like Khalid are paying smugglers to help them escape, others -- mostly young men -- risk their lives to get out by hiding in trucks.

Abu Ahmad, who lives in Mosul, explains how two of his relatives fled the city that way recently. "The driver was a friend who accepted the risk to hide them in his truck," he says. "He was very scared, because if he got caught he would be severely punished."

Well aware that not all "escape from Mosul" stories have happy endings -- many people have died trying to flee -- Abu Ahmad recalls the fear he and his family felt after their two relatives left in the truck. "We were so afraid for the lives of all of them until we got a note saying they were safe in Baghdad after a 60-hour journey."

No Guarantees

Even if Khalid and his family make it out of Mosul alive, they face a long, difficult journey, and an uncertain future.

First, they will have to travel on foot to Iraqi Kurdistan. From there, the hope is to reach Turkey via Syria.

"It’s not an easy journey. It takes days and anything can happen on the way," Khalid admits. "But regardless, people want to leave."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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