Thousands of people are running from the crumbling Islamic State group in eastern Mosul every day. Other families are staying put, hiding in their homes as battles rage outside, later emerging on the streets as Iraqi forces claim victory.
In the days that follow escape or military victory, remnants of IS remain on their bodies, in their neighborhoods and seared into their minds. Men and women are still dressed in IS-mandated styles. Discarded schoolbooks reveal the IS ideology, and IS licenses, newspapers and other everyday items show how deeply entrenched the group became as it terrorized the people.
On their bodies
Islamic State militants enforce a strict dress code they say is based on Islamic values. Families running from the war and the militant group are almost always Muslims, and they disagree, saying these rules are not recognized by mainstream Islam.
Regardless, when they lived under IS, they followed orders or faced harsh punishments. The women’s dress code: a black full-faced veil, gloves and covered feet, all in the name of modesty and piety.
This code is enforced in two ways. First, militants beat the husbands or fathers of women who are dressed in anyway ‘wrong.’ Additionally, female IS members, known locally as “The Biters” literally bite women who broke the rules.
As families flee, many women flip the veils off their faces when they reach Iraqi-controlled areas.
Male dress codes are just as strict, although a little more difficult for outsiders and even many Mosul residents to understand. IS militants insist all men are bearded and their hair is of even length. Pants must have elastic sewn into the cuffs so they don’t reach past men’s ankles. Many men improvise by pulling socks over their cuffs or wearing sweatpants.
Men say non-compliance with dress codes could get them just a beating on the ankles in the streets, or jail time that includes whippings and other forms of violence.
As Iraqi forces push into eastern Mosul, men emerge from their homes dressed IS-style, but change their appearance within hours or days.
“On the day the Iraqi forces took our street, we immediately shaved our beards,” says 27-year-old Ashraf, outside his Mosul shop in an area recently won by Iraqi forces. “Later in the day, we heard shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ coming from behind the Iraqi army lines.
“We thought maybe they were counterattacking, so we ran to the sinks to retrieve our hair,” he jokes.
Small shops that have recently opened around refugee camps say razors are their biggest seller.
People fleeing IS in Iraq often laugh bitterly about the school curriculum the militants developed that cause most families to keep their children at home. “In the schools,” they say, “they only teach one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets.”
A textbook for children around the age of seven reveals that their assessment of IS education is no joke. The books aggrandize violence, with cartoons of weapons and fighters on almost every page. Arithmetic problems on one page ask things like: If one fighter has 85 mortars and another fighter has 60 mortars, what is the difference?
At an IS clinic, posters explain why beards are required for all men and satellite television is banned. People who have escaped say punishments for non-compliance with these rules ranges from whipping to imprisonment to death.
IS legacy: Fear and destruction
As graffiti gets painted over, beards are shaven and city services are hopefully restored, IS’s real legacy is expected to remain for the unforeseeable future. Neighborhoods are crushed, families are torn apart, children have been out of school for three years, and so many people have been killed, tortured or raped that it could take years to count the victims. And if all goes as planned in the next few months and IS is driven out of Iraq, a million people could be newly homeless.
Around noon one Friday, 30-year-old Nabil stands by the gate to his house, quietly watching as soldiers display weapons they captured from IS to visiting journalists. With a thick beard and pants cuffs synched well above his ankles, he looks like an IS supporter.
Less than 24 hours before, he was not a supporter, but silently complicit, trying to protect his family under IS rule.
“They were staying in that house for a week,” he says, pointing to the house next door. “We could hear them talking on their walkie-talkies.”
As news reached Nabil that the Iraqi army was getting closer to his area, he still felt powerless over the heavily armed militants. “We couldn’t tell them to leave. We were scared.”
In villages and city centers, locals describe the two-and-a-half years they spent under IS as life in a prison, and are eager to share some of the horrors they survived.
“They killed my brother and my mother after accusing them of helping the Iraqi police,” says 20-year-old Farah, a few minutes after arriving at a makeshift bus station set up just outside the war zone. She and her family had fled on foot only an hour ago, and they duck behind a building when they hear the far-away crack of gunfire.
“They murdered my brother in a mosque while he was praying,” she adds. “This is not Islam.”