“We know they are all [ISIS] families. But what do we do, kill them all?”
Reading this quote from an Iraqi soldier stationed in Mosul’s Old City should have been jarring to me. But it wasn’t. Over the last few days, we’ve heard similar statements made by soldiers charged with clearing residents from the most recently liberated neighbourhoods of Mosul.
“We know they’re all ISIS.”
“Don’t go to that neighborhood. They were with ISIS.”
This is the prevailing story told now of those who remain in the last neighbourhoods to be liberated in Mosul. Basic logic says that those still here must be either ISIS members or supporters—otherwise they would have fled long ago.
It’s a tidy story. It makes dealing with those fleeing the city today a lot simpler: you are presumed a member of ISIS unless you can prove otherwise.
There are certainly ISIS members left in the city, now attempting to escape unnoticed amongst the thousands walking in search of safety. With a haircut and a shave, they almost blend in.
There are certainly still pockets of resistance in Mosul—ISIS members continuing to hide out in the old city, with stockpiles of arms, ready to launch another attack. We have seen this in the last few days, in neighbourhoods declared “liberated” months ago.
There are certainly those who would use the current crisis to cause even more devastation—suicide bombers have hid themselves among the fleeing crowds, including one woman who detonated herself while holding her baby.
And certainly there is a need to protect soldiers and residents outside Mosul from ISIS members—no question.
But most of the tens of thousands of residents who remained in Mosul until recently have nothing to do with ISIS. There are countless reasons why they stayed in their homes, despite the danger.
Most families were terrified of ISIS. They knew the stories of their violence. Most families lost relatives, friends and neighbours over small infractions like smoking a cigarette or using a cell phone. The streets were littered with the bodies of residents killed by ISIS, left as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience. At least if they stayed within the walls of their own home, some reasoned, they might stay safe.
Many families were too poor to flee. Wealthy residents made it out of the city in the early days of ISIS. They moved to more southern cities in Iraq or outside the country. But if your entire savings was in banks that ISIS pillaged, or in your home, or if you had no funds to start a new life elsewhere—you were stuck.
Then there are the families with elderly relatives, who couldn’t leave parents and grandparents behind without anyone to care for them. There are the disabled, the sick, and their families—physically unable to flee without help. There are the widows who were unable, under ISIS, to even be on the streets without a male escort. There are the mothers with children who were unable to carry everyone out. Just last week we met a mother with five children—how was she supposed to make it out with five children all on her own?!
This story isn’t over, either, because an estimated 150,000 people live in territory still held by ISIS in Iraq. The liberation of Mosul has received a lot of warranted attention. But there are large swaths of Iraq, not to mention Syria, still under ISIS control.
150,000 terrified, hungry, sick, exhausted Iraqis who never asked to be in this situation.
Security forces must be careful as they manage the flow of families out of recently occupied territory—no one wants ISIS members free to enact violence in a different city. However, if security forces aren’t careful, they will create the same situation that allowed ISIS to take a foothold in cities like Fallujah to begin with.
When residents feel that they have suffered and no one helped them, when they feel that they have been oppressed and were then mistreated by those who were supposed to be their rescuers—deep resentment develops. Resentment against the government, against the official armed forces, even against their own neighbours.
In the future, when another group like ISIS comes along, their resentment will be the perfect place to grow another war. And make no mistake: until healing comes to the Iraqi people, there will always be another group to exploit people’s grievances and bring terror and violence.
Why do we provide water? Why do we give food to those who have been starving under ISIS control? Why do we create business opportunities for displaced families? Because together, we bring some healing for the Iraqi people. Together, we show the devastated residents of Mosul that they aren’t forgotten. We show them with food and water, with business opportunities... and with love.
No, they are not all ISIS.
But what matters more than who they are is who we are. What kind of people we are willing to be? The kind of people who love across enemy lines, real and imagined? The kind of people who show up even when it’s risky, even when everything isn’t clear cut?
Will we be the kind of people whose love can unmake violence?