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After ISIS, People From Mosul Fear What May Come Next

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As the operation to retake Mosul continues, Iraqis fleeing ISIS-controlled areas of the city arrived Tuesday at the nearby town of al-Qayyarah, secured by the Iraqi army.

The man from Mosul is neat and tidy, in his mid-30s. He uses careful English and tries to stop his voice from trembling as he speaks about the Iraqi city he lived in all his life.

"My mind is full with memories," he says. "Friends. Home. You know — my home. I was born there."

ISIS has occupied Mosul for more than two years. Residents describe a regime of strict rules and savagely violent punishments for breaking them. The man is too afraid of ISIS to give his name or occupation, but he is a professional. He brought up a family in Mosul.

"We have house, we have car, we have jobs, we have life, we are normal people," he says.

He fled after living a year under the extremists, and his nostalgia is tangible. Now, the long-awaited military operations to retake Mosul are getting underway. What does he see for his future if the city is wrested back?

"I miss the home," he says. "But going home is like killing myself."

He says he expects chaos and violent retribution if ISIS is pushed out of Mosul. He fears that families who lost loved ones to the militants will take revenge not just on those who worked with ISIS, but on their whole families.

"There is no law, in the years to come," he says. "The government is weak. I don't trust these guys."

He regards his life in Mosul as over. He never plans to go back, and says when he sits with his friends from Mosul in the nearby city of Irbil, they do not speak of home.

None of them will return, so reminiscence is painful.

His cynicism about the capacity of the local officials, now in exile, to run a post-ISIS Mosul is widespread, and tacitly shared by Western diplomats here.

When questioned, Iraqi officials are keen to talk about the military strategy to retake the city, but are vague on details of security, justice or reconciliation.

Nofal Hamdani Sultan, governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, says the fate of people will simply be decided by law.

"If anyone work with Daesh, he go to the jail," he says, using ISIS' Arabic acronym.

When asked about the families of such people, he says any family with a father or a brother in ISIS will all leave, including women and children, "maybe outside Iraq, maybe to Turkey, to Syria."

This, he concedes, could number tens of thousands of people.

And on security, he says the holding force for a Mosul retaken from ISIS should be only the local police. But there are currently only 8,000 police ready for the job. Before the events of 2014, Mosul had 32,000 police.

The anxiety of Mosul's people about their future highlights a wider crisis across Iraq: In most places retaken from ISIS, most of the population has been unable to return home.

More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced since ISIS' predecessor, al-Qaida, took Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. Although those numbers are not officially broken down by sect or ethnicity, aid workers say the majority of the displaced are Sunni Arabs.

ISIS is Sunni, and most of its support in Iraq has been drawn from the Sunni Arab minority, which has chafed under a government led since 2003 by parties from the Shiite majority.

But millions of Sunni Arabs have suffered at the hands of the extremists. They now face a bleak future. Many of their homes have been destroyed in the fighting against ISIS, and they say they are treated as complicit with ISIS by the security forces and some other Iraqis. In some areas, they have been prevented from returning home.

The displaced man from Mosul who doesn't believe he can go home becomes agitated as he talks about the way he's perceived.

"Now everyone hates the Sunni, they think we are Daesh," he says. "What about me? What about me who escaped? What about the doctors, the teachers? You cannot say everyone is Daesh."

Although he doesn't trust officials set to govern Mosul, he sees them merely as corrupt and inefficient. It's ISIS he really blames for ripping his world apart.

"It makes me too angry," he says. "They killed everything. Killed history. They killed people. They killed hope. Killed future. They killed everything."

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