Near Mosul, Some Residents Flee ISIS, Others Stay And Fight With ISIS

Oct 24, 2016
Originally published on October 24, 2016 7:45 pm

The Iraqi military and its allies have been pushing for a week toward the city of Mosul, held by the Islamic State. For people fleeing the fighting, a few thousand so far, it's been an unbelievably frightening seven days.

In the Debaga camp for displaced people, about 50 miles southeast of Mosul, which is becoming more crowded, I sit with a family who tell me about leaving the village where they lived under ISIS more than two years.

"We left at sunrise, around 4 a.m., and there was no ISIS around. The [Iraqi] security forces were on the outskirts, but hadn't gone in," said a heavily pregnant woman, surrounded by her cousins and their small children, asleep or listless in the hot sun.

The army said it would wait until the civilians were out before attacking ISIS. The extremists banned cellphones on pain of death but secretly some villagers spoke to the army and agreed on an escape route.

But as they were leaving, "ISIS appeared out of nowhere...They were firing at us," said the pregnant woman, who told her story on condition of anonymity because she is afraid of ISIS.

They ran for their lives. And no wonder she is afraid: the men firing were her neighbors – people from the same small village. By her estimate, about half the men in her village pledged allegiance to the extremists.

All politics is local. In her village, the same woman explained, you have to understand there are two tribes — the Shammout and Qufaa.

"It's half the Shammout tribe and half the Qufaa tribe. And the Qufaa joined ISIS. And the Shammout – before ISIS came — they were recruits in the security forces," she said, adjusting the mattress she and the children were clustering under for shade.

Reading between the lines, it seems perhaps one tribe held the security forces jobs and cut the other tribe out of them. When ISIS came along, they exploited that rift. And now the tribesmen they recruited are hardcore ISIS fighters.

"They have tunnels that go all the way to other areas. They are able to smuggle weapons, food and fighters," she said.

She says ISIS members are like rats, living underground. They can melt away and then come back. The fighters have sent their families to other ISIS-held areas for safety. And she thinks it will be very difficult to defeat them.

Across the courtyard, another family is willing to talk, but are also too afraid of ISIS to be identified. I'm speaking only to women because the men are detained, undergoing checks for possible links to ISIS.

These women are from a different village, Ibrahim al-Khalil. But, clustered together around a matriarch with traditional face tattoos, they tell a similar story. The Iraqi army is in their village now, but they won't go back home anytime soon.

They say they're still afraid of ISIS. They won't say which tribes in their area are with ISIS, but they do say some of their relatives are still under the control of the extremists.

"Families are still besieged by ISIS in Mosul," says one of the women, "We have our aunts there, our cousins. We are afraid they will kill them."

Officials from Iraq, and from the U.S., which is supporting the offensive, say ISIS is losing territory and much of the population has turned against the group.

But the Iraqi army is still fighting around the villages where these women lived – about 20 miles from the outskirts of Mosul. And if these accounts of local support for ISIS are anything to go by, it's going to be a tough fight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Iraq, government forces and their allies continue to fight toward the ISIS-held city of Mosul through rural areas and villages. NPR's Alice Fordham has been speaking to people who have fled those areas. They say ISIS still has significant local support.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The Mosul offensive has been under way a week, and for people fleeing the fighting, that's been an unbelievably frightening seven days. In a camp for the displaced, I sit with one family who tell me about leaving the village where they'd lived under ISIS more than two years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) We left at sunrise about 4, and there was no ISIS around. The security forces were on the outskirts but hadn't gone in.

FORDHAM: The army said they'd wait until the civilians were out before attacking. The extremists banned cellphones on pain of death, but secretly some villagers spoke to the army and agreed on an escape route. But as they were leaving...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) ISIS appeared out of nowhere. They were firing at us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They ran for their lives. The woman wouldn't give her name because she's still so afraid of ISIS and no wonder. The men firing were her neighbors, people from the same small village.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) They joined ISIS, about half of them.

FORDHAM: All politics is local. In her village, she explains you have to understand there are two tribes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) It's half the Shmouta tribe and half the Gouva tribe, and the Gouva joined ISIS. And the Shmouta - before ISIS came, they were recruits in the security forces.

FORDHAM: Reading between the lines, it seems like maybe one tribe had held the security forces jobs and cut the other tribe out of them. When ISIS came along, they exploited that rift, and now the tribesmen they recruited are hard-core ISIS fighters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) They have tunnels that go all the way to other areas. They're able to smuggle weapons, food and fighters.

FORDHAM: She says they're like rats living underground. They can melt away and then come back. The fighters have sent their families to other ISIS-held areas for safety, and she thinks it would be very difficult to defeat them.

Across the courtyard I meet another family who will only talk if I don't identify them. I'm only speaking to women because the men are detained, undergoing checks for links to ISIS. These women are from a different village, Ibrahim al Khalil, but they tell a similar story. The army's in their village now, but they won't go back anytime soon.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: They say they're afraid of ISIS still. They won't say which tribes in their area are with ISIS, but they do say some of their relatives are still under the extremists' control.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "Families are still besieged by ISIS in Mosul," they say. "We have our aunts and our cousins. We're scared for them. ISIS might kill them."

Officials from Iraq and from the U.S., which is supporting the offensive, say ground is being taken from the extremists and that much of the population has turned against ISIS. But the Iraqi army is still fighting around these women's village still about 20 miles away from the outskirts of Mosul. And if these accounts of local support for ISIS are anything to go by, that's going to be a tough fight. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Debaga camp, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.