“WE ARE VICTIMS TOO”: THE WOMEN ISIS LEFT BEHIND

“Iraq is like a flock of sheep with no shepherd,” said Mariam, a grieving mother whose son joined the so-called Islamic State and who was killed during the battle to liberate the city of Mosul. In the aftermath of the months-long military operation to wrest back control of Iraq’s second city from Islamic State militants, I interviewed women whose husbands, sons, fathers and brothers had been recruited by the terror group.

As a result of their affiliation and perceived support of ISIS, the women I met were unable to return to their homes for fear of persecution by the Iraqi Security forces as well as community members seeking revenge for the brutality and suffering inflicted by ISIS. Camps that were set up to provide temporary shelter for internally displaced people fleeing the fighting became a refuge for families with perceived links to ISIS who had little choice but to remain within the relative safety of the camps.

The success of ISIS in seizing control of the city of Mosul in 2014 and initially garnering the support of many of its residents must be considered within the framework of the region’s deeply complex socioeconomic and political context, and the inflamed sectarian divisions that were deepened following the US invasion in 2003. The decision to become a member of the group was, for many men, simply a choice made out of the necessity to earn an income and provide for their family. For others, their motivation was a result of radicalisation, religious indoctrination and belief in ISIS’ extreme Islamic ideology. Whatever their reason for pledging allegiance, given the context of Mosul’s religiously and culturally conservative society, female family members had little, if any, influence over their loved ones’ decision to join or not to join.

With ISIS defeated and the majority of its members killed or incarcerated, the women and children left behind are forced to face the consequences, carrying the dangerous burden of association with ISIS. I spoke to several women, many of whom were widowed and grieving the loss of their loved ones, about what motivated their male relatives to join, and about the challenges they now face following the fall of ISIS. These women face daily struggles as they seek to forge a living for themselves and their children in a society that remains unforgiving of anyone tainted by association with the terror group, whether or not they themselves were unwilling or even forced participants in what became a failed attempt to establish a permanent caliphate in the region.

These are their stories, in their own words.

KHADIJA, 35, MOTHER OF NINE

“Two of my sons and my husband joined ISIS. My son joined because he couldn’t find a job during ISIS control. Then he convinced his father to join as well because he had just got out of prison and had no job. And my other son later joined as well, also due to unemployment and money issues.

I refused when they told me that they had joined ISIS, I didn’t agree with them, but my husband told me that we needed to earn some money and this was the only option available. He told me that we have no choice, we are starving. But even what he told me didn’t manage to convince me because deep down I knew what was going to happen; I knew that eventually I would lose them forever.

When ISIS were about to reach this neighbourhood I left and went to another neighbourhood because I was afraid to stay at home. I left without my husband and my sons who joined ISIS, and then I heard from people that they died. One of my sons died in Badush (a village northwest of Mosul) because he was working there. What I know is that my husband and sons didn’t hurt people when they joined ISIS. People didn’t change how they treated us after the city has been retaken, and people here still talk to us normally because they know my daughters and I had nothing to do with ISIS.

I now run a small shop for women’s clothes and fabric. I am afraid that the Iraqi security forces will knock on my door one day and tell me that I need to leave because we are an ISIS family and they don’t want us in this community anymore. I know that my husband and my sons were ISIS members, but I didn’t see them hurting anyone and even if they did, I was against it and I had nothing to do with their decision to join. I am also someone who was affected by ISIS. They came and my husband and my sons joined them, and now they are all gone.”

Khadija holds photos of her two sons who joined ISIS and who were killed during the battle to retake Mosul and the surrounding areas.

FATIMA, 40, MOTHER OF FIVE

“I was against the idea of my husband joining ISIS, but I couldn’t do anything to stop him; women here don’t have a say in what men do, women can’t say anything. He joined ISIS because he wanted to earn money, and because his friends convinced him to join.

I am afraid for my daughters. I want to be able to raise them well, and I want people to understand that my daughters and I had nothing to do with their father’s decision to join ISIS. I don’t want them to be called ISIS daughters.”

SANA, 30, MOTHER OF FOUR

“Before ISIS took control of the region, my husband worked at the Bayji oil refinery. When ISIS came, there was no more work for him so after a while he joined them (ISIS). We couldn’t do anything about what happened, we didn’t have any power or rights as women and children. We couldn’t change anything, and we are also victims of what happened and what we had to live through.

The last time I saw my husband was the third day of Eid after Ramadan. After that he left and I never saw him again. A week later his friends came to me and told me he had been killed by a mortar or an airstrike. Of course I want to go back home to Hawija, but I have problems. First I don’t have any identification, second I don’t know what has happened to my house. When the (Iraqi) forces found out my husband was ‘Daeshi’ (ISIS member) they took all of my money and gold that I had.

They (ISIS) came out of the blue. Just suddenly they were here. They were not that bad to us at first, so I cannot say they were really bad. But after some time we were not happy with them because we did not accept everything they said, and they hurt us; they hurt a lot of people. Look at us, we are also victims of what they did.”

Sana sits with her four children and their friends inside a tent in a displacement camp near the city of Mosul.

MARIAM, 53

“How could I support my son’s decision to join ISIS? Terrorists killed my husband. The problem in the community now is that the federal police is threatening us all the time, kicking on our door and telling us to go away. We can’t ask for our rights because they say we are ISIS. Even if I have to get paperwork at any office or Government department, I’m scared because if they know my son, they will say he was ISIS. I don’t see anything bright in our future, but I hope the Government will help us. These children are innocent, they didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Mariam’s son was killed in East Mosul at the beginning of the battle for liberation.

Mariam’s youngest son Mohammed, 18, keeps pigeons on the roof of his mother’s house in western Mosul. “He works sometimes but he spends half of the money on pigeons,” explains Mariam. “Even though he doesn’t have nice clothes to wear, he prefers to look after the pigeons more than himself.”

AMINA, 30

“My husband worked as a cook for ISIS. He joined in 2014 after they (ISIS) took control of the area. I couldn’t do anything about it – women don’t have a lot of influence on their husband’s decisions in our culture.”

Amina has lived in the camp for over a year, and describes it as a living hell. “All we need is to go back to our areas because we can’t go on living like this and we can’t lose our futures anymore. We have to go back, there’s no other way we can succeed, or educate our children and have a normal life again. That’s all we want and hope for.”

ZAINAB, 27, MOTHER OF FIVE

“I am a widow and I have five children, three boys and two girls. Five of the men in my family joined ISIS, one of them was my husband and the rest were my brothers in law. Three of them died and my husband and his youngest brother are missing, we don’t know anything about them.

My husband worked for ISIS as a cook for approximately one and a half years. When he first told me that he was going to join ISIS, I refused because I knew that if I said yes, I would be sending my husband to his death. I already knew what was going to happen at the end, but he didn’t listen to me and I couldn’t do anything to stop him. None of them carried a weapon, they all worked in the ISIS residence office as daily workers. My husband had to join them because we were about to die of hunger.

I really find it hard to cope with the situation that I’m in right now, I am alone taking care of five children. My father-in-law is helping us with his pension, but it’s still not enough because five families are depending on that one pension. After the military operation to retake Mosul we couldn’t stay in our neighbourhood – I had to move and live here with my husband’s family in this neighbourhood in west Mosul because people in my community didn’t accept me and my children among them anymore. I never imagined that one day I would be forced to move out because of our affiliation with ISIS. It’s not only the people in our neighbourhood that won’t accept us there; it’s the Iraqi security forces as well – they don’t want us to go back.

I am wearing the veil now as I am talking to you not because I don’t want other people to recognize me or that I am afraid; I am wearing it to tell everyone that this veil didn’t come with ISIS, I feel proud to be wearing it.”

NOFA, 56, MOTHER OF FIVE

“I’ve been here in this neighbourhood in west Mosul since September 2016. I had to leave my village and seek another area to live because my sons were ISIS members and I was afraid of the Iraqi Security Forces. My husband died in 2007 and I have five sons. Four of them joined ISIS and the youngest one, who is eleven years old, is with me now. Two of my sons were killed and two others went to the Old City of Mosul during ISIS control. I don’t know what happened to them.

My sons joined ISIS because they were brainwashed. They worked in farming so they didn’t join for money. Whoever joins ISIS it’s like they’ve entered a dead-end road. I always wanted them to earn an income by working with me in farming, not working with ISIS – by killing and hurting innocent people. I didn’t see ISIS members killing people but that’s what I heard. People didn’t want them because they were very strict and people started to live with more poverty than ever.

The people back in my village changed the way they treat me and they don’t want me to go back. And honestly, I can’t go back because I am afraid; the Iraqi Security Forces are telling me that it’s safe to go back and it’s fine but I can’t, I’m afraid that they would hurt me and my son. I just want to be able to receive my social welfare from the Government; it was cut during ISIS control. I went to the department that’s responsible for these issues and they told me that I can’t have it because my sons were ISIS fighters.

I just don’t know what to do to convince people that I had nothing to do with their decisions, I don’t know why I am being punished for what they did. I just want to raise my son in a proper way. I want to go back to my village and be able to live in peace.”

Nofa (left), and Ramziya both have sons who joined ISIS. “I wanted to go and live with my relatives in Hamam Al Alil but they refused,” said Nofa. “They kept telling me that they don’t want me because my sons were ISIS fighters. I told them that I have nothing to do with them and I just want to raise my youngest son in peace, but they refused because most of them are Iraqi Security Forces members or Popular Mobilization Forces members. So now I am living here with this lady in west Mosul.”

RAMZIYA, 55, MOTHER OF ELEVEN

“My husband and sons joined ISIS because they heard that they will give money to people who join them, and since my husband and sons were daily workers and couldn’t find any jobs during ISIS control, they had to join. I didn’t agree with them joining; I was against it but in our community men don’t listen to women. I was against it because I knew that my children and I would be the victims of them joining.

My husband used to work for ISIS as a guard, but he didn’t carry a weapon. One of my sons worked for them as a photographer and after two months he was killed. I don’t know what the other two did for ISIS. After they all joined, people used to treat us well and didn’t change the way they talked to us or interacted with us. I think this is because my husband didn’t do any harm to anyone; he didn’t carry a weapon and he didn’t use ISIS vehicles to take him from one place to another.

Now people don’t talk to me and they don’t even know if I am alive or not. My youngest son, who’s six years old, is bullied by other children at school – they call him an ISIS child or the son of an ISIS fighter. He comes home most of the time dragging his backpack as he cries and tells me what happened to him at school.

None of my relatives ask about us; how we are living, if we have anything to eat or not. They have all abandoned us.

I just want to say to the people who look at us as ISIS families, we weren’t the reason the men joined ISIS, we had nothing to do with it and we couldn’t say anything. They made the decision to join by themselves. We and our children are innocent people who want to live in peace. I know this might be difficult for people, especially the ones who were affected by ISIS and what they did to their family members, but we had nothing to do with what happened to them, we don’t deserve to be treated like this.”

ZAHRA, 33, MOTHER OF SIX

“My husband joined ISIS and worked for them as a cook. He was killed by an airstrike in June 2017.” Zahra now lives in a camp for internally displaced people near the town of Mosul, and is unable to return home as a result of her husband’s links to ISIS.

HAWA, 25

Hawa holds her five-month-old baby inside a tent in a camp for internally displaced people near Mosul. Hawa’s husband worked with ISIS in an office and was killed by an airstrike in May 2017. “It’s very hard in the camp,” she says. “We moved back to Mosul for a couple of months but we couldn’t afford to live so we came back to the camp 20 days ago.”

NOOR, 52

“ISIS did not force anyone to go and work with them, but they made people hungry so they forced them indirectly. Even if our children were ISIS, why should we be punished for it?”

Two of Noor’s sons worked inside an ISIS hospital and one of her daughters was married to an ISIS militant. She now lives in a camp for internally displaced persons near the city of Mosul.

MUKHTAR (COMMUNITY LEADER) SALIH MOHAMMED

“During the operation to retake this area, a lot of families were killed, approximately eighty families. The reason why men from this neighbourhood joined ISIS is because they were brainwashed that ISIS ideology is what Islam is really about and this is how it should be.

Other community leaders of this neighbourhood and I had to get ISIS families out of this neighbourhood because people don’t want them to stay here anymore; they feel mad and angry when they see them; they remind them of their family members who joined ISIS and what they did to them.

Those ISIS families are now living in camps or they went to East Mosul. It all depends on Iraqi security forces – if they tell us that it’s ok for these families to return, we will let them back.

Some families are still here in this neighbourhood even though their men and sons were ISIS fighters – those families are female headed households, left without a provider and looking after children on their own. The reason why we didn’t force them to leave is because it’s not fair, they had nothing to do with their men’s decision to join ISIS as opposed to the other group of families that we told to leave.”