Before April 2003, Iraq lived like most countries in the Middle East under a dictatorship. People there dreamed of freedom and thought that with the fall of the dictatorship by the United States of America, all their problems would end. But actually, their biggest problems started after that. The armed groups of Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, and Naqshbandi took control of the city. They took money from the citizens, including doctors, engineers, lawyers, traders, teachers, and many others, and those who did not pay were killed! And in the meantime, there has been a daily street war among US forces, al-Qaeda militants, and others. Cars explode between houses. Various types of guns are used in clashes, and hanging in the sky, American Apache helicopters bombard the city with missiles. It is a city of war and death.
But this was also not the worst part of the story. In 2006, the Islamic State—ISIS—was declared. This is known in 2009 as Daesh, or Islamic State in Iraq and the AL Sham.
Daesh destroyed other armed groups and took control of the entire city. They began the daily killing of minorities, including Shiites, Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shabaks. For several years, journalists in Mosul were trying to tell the truth about what was going on. I wrote a piece about what was actually happening in 2007, and at the end of 2012 I published a two-part article titled ‘Everybody Knows the Secret: Pay the Islamic State or You Will Be Killed.’ The series explained how Islamic extremists were gaining control of the city. At the time, more than 50,000 soldiers and policemen had turned the city more or less into a military camp. They had blocked off a lot of neighbourhoods, leaving just one entrance for residents to come and go, and they set up checkpoints all over the streets of the city as well as by bridges and city entrances. So, the question a lot of us were asking was, with all of these policemen and all of this military presence in the city, how could the Islamic State be so in control?
From April 2003 to today, we’ve lost almost sixty-five journalists and media workers, the largest number for any city anywhere in the world. The situation has been escalating since August 2013, when my friend Kahtn Sami was killed. He was killed in broad daylight right in front of a military checkpoint, and his corpse remained in the street for two hours, with nobody daring to take the body away. Two months later, two more of my colleagues, Mohammed Ghanem and Mohammed Karim al-Badrani, who both worked for Al Sharqiya satellite TV, were also killed in broad daylight in Serichana market in the city center, an area that’s always crowded with policemen. A couple of days after that, they killed Bashar al-Nuaimi, a journalist who used to work with Al Mosuliya TV. And after that, Nawras al-Nuaimi, from the same station, was also killed. That’s how this terrible series of assassinations started. And in each of those cases, ISIS claimed they were the ones responsible.
Twice I was in danger, and I sort of miraculously escaped both times. The threats started as far back as 2009. One time, when I went to my favorite bookstore in al-Dawasa in the central market area of Mosul, a place I had been going to buy newspapers since I was a child, the owner told me that he had heard that Al Mada, the news agency where I was working, was receiving funding from the Israeli Mossad – this was the equivalent of a death warrant against me in Mosul. It was the first message warning me to leave that agency. And then I got many SMSs telling me either to leave the city or declare my repentance, which essentially meant quitting as a journalist. In one of those SMSs, I was asked to pay a big sum of money to avoid being murdered. I knew at the time those SMSs were from strangers who didn’t know me personally because Mosul in general was a peaceful and well-educated community.
And then, in February, I was in the marketplace in Mosul, metres away from the place where Mohammed Karim al-Badrani was assassinated. There was a boy between twelve and fifteen years old. I saw him pulling a gun. The gun looked strange because the barrel was so long. And then I realized that the gun had a silencer. He was pulling this gun with its long barrel from a sack and pointing it at me. For a second I didn’t understand what was going on because I was just turning onto the main street, into the main market. At that exact moment, in that same area, a bomb exploded. Then this little boy just disappeared. The place was filled with smoke and the smell of powder, and he just vanished. He must have run away.
A lot of the killings are carried out by boys that age. The security officials used to tell us that teenagers could be mobilized very quickly and wouldn’t attract a lot of attention, not even from the victims. They could run fast, and they also used bicycles. There’s a lot of unemployment in Mosul these days, and so some teenagers are recruited very easily. We heard that the boy who assassinated one of our friends received just 50,000 Iraqi dinars to do it, which is around forty dollars – very cheap for a human being. Do we have confirmation of that? No, we don’t. Whenever someone is killed, the official announcement from the security officers just says, ‘An unknown person has assassinated this person.’ For journalists, it became a joke: when any murder takes place, well, ‘Unknown’ did it.
Not long after that, I was driving in the al-Arabic quarter outside of Mosul, and suddenly the windscreen of my car started to fall; it just landed in pieces on my lap and at my feet. I found out it was an assassination attempt when I stopped at a checkpoint nearby. Afterwards, the soldier who inspected me must have leaked the news of this assassination attempt. I was working as the news manager for Sama Al Mosul TV and for another TV channel called Nino Al Huq at the time, and we did not say anything about the incident. But soon two Iraqi news networks were reporting the news. They were claiming they had gotten the news from me, but I had never given them interviews. Many of my colleagues who work as correspondents at other news agencies, like Al Jazeera Arabic, contacted me for confirmation. I asked them not to confirm it or go public with it because I have a lot of friends and family members all over the country and outside who would have been terrified if they heard the news, and because my staff would have become extremely frightened.
By that point I really had no choice but to leave. My wife and children were deeply affected by these incidents. Sometime earlier, I had applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), and by then we had run out of options for our salvation other than waiting for a reply to our application. I am so lucky that ICORN saved me and my family.
One evening, a couple of days after I arrived in Norway, my friend Wathiq al-Ghadhanfari, who was one of the most famous anchormen in Mosul and a public spokesman for the city government, called me to tell me he was very happy that I got out of Iraq and that I was finally free. The next afternoon I saw on the news that he had been killed. He was the last colleague of mine to be killed before ISIS took control of Mosul in June. But the killing has continued, of course. Just a few weeks ago I heard about the death of Jamal Ibrahim al-Masri and a female journalist, Masun al-Jiladi. About one hundred journalists or media workers have been driven out of their homes, and some of them were deported after the ISIS invasion. Many others have been arrested by the ISIS courts.
I left with my family in Mosul on 6 March 2014. A few weeks later, on June 10, security forces withdrew from Mosul, and ISIS took control of the city and imposed its deadly sentences. Whoever fell into the hands of terrorists was killed. If I had stayed in Mosul, the same thing would have happened to me or my family.
I don’t know how I survived all that. I lived in a city where a person could be killed just for his name because the militants do not believe in the religion associated with that name. I could have been killed because of a word I wrote or said, as happened to many of my colleagues.
These events and thoughts, these pictures of the dead, they live in my memory even now, more than five years after I came out of hell.
Nawzat Shamdin, is a Iraqi Kurdish journalist, novelist and lawyer, was born in 1973 in the northern city of Mosul. He has eleven books, including four novels. He worked in newspapers, television, and radio, and he was a corporate lawyer for many years. He currently lives in Norway as an ICORN guest writer.