Burned alive for using a smartphone

In ISIS-held Iraq, an internet connection was an act of resistance.
Burned alive for using a smartphone

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Benjamin Plackett
Benjamin Plackett|@BenjPlackett|April 5, 2019 8:00 AM
This article was produced in partnership with Point, a YouTube channel for investigative journalism.

Mosul, Iraq -- Before the camera rolls, 34-year-old Fatima pulls her head scarf over her face and ushers her young daughter out of frame.

It can be hard to get people on camera in this city. They're happy to talk off the record, but as soon as a recorder comes out, they become skittish -- and with good reason. They're terrified that ISIS will eventually return and that they'll be first on the chopping block for talking to journalists about the brutality of the occupation.

"They found a mobile on my nephew," said Fatima, lifelong Mosul resident. "They tied him to a post, poured gasoline on him and set fire to him."

She's not alone. Almost everyone in Mosul has lost someone at some point in the past few years. This place has taken a beating, first from the advance of ISIS, then from the coalition forces that ousted the terrorists and finally from the various explosive booby traps left by ISIS in fridges, televisions and light switches for returning refugees.

June 4, 2014, was the day it all started to go wrong for Mosul.

Armies flying the black flags of ISIS approached the city, and it took them just six days to occupy the governor's office, take control of the city's television and radio networks, and capture the airport. Many policemen and government soldiers simply abandoned their posts and retreated as the militants rolled into town.

Mosul -- Iraq's second-largest city -- was a relatively easy acquisition for ISIS. By June 10, the victorious insurgents were walking the city's streets unchallenged.

A couple of weeks after ISIS took the city in June 2014, the organization's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, officially proclaimed a caliphate from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. He also took the opportunity to declare himself Emir of the Islamic State and ruler of all Muslims everywhere. It wasn't long after the grandiose proclamations that harrowing tales of Mosul's treatment began to creep out.

Keen to win the propaganda war just as much as the battlefield skirmishes, ISIS decided to turn off the internet. But there was a problem. Most people in Mosul were connected to the internet by their phone's 3G signal rather than a broadband modem, and those phones could still get reception from the cell towers on the other side of the front line.

The answer was confiscation, and to severely punish anyone who disobeyed.

"If they were searched and found to have a mobile, ISIS would take them."

"For years, it felt like we had gone backward. We had gone back to the Stone Age," said Fatima.

The militants went door to door through the city of approximately 1 million on a mission to commandeer SIM cards, televisions and satellites. When they'd expunged a street of their devices, they'd mark houses at the end of the street with green spray paint and move on.

"Anyone who was caught on the phone or with a mobile in their hand -- or if they were searched and found to have a mobile -- ISIS would take them," said Jamal, a 47-year-old shopkeeper from Mosul.

Ali, a 25-year-old mechanic from Mosul, has a story similar to Fatima's.

"My brother was executed for using his mobile phone," he said.

Ali's brother lived in the Wadi Hajar district of Mosul, which was known for its loyalty to the Iraqi army. ISIS would frequently and without warning raid the area, looking for an excuse to murder.

"They gathered all of us in mosques and schools and raided all the houses in the neighborhood," said Ali. One day they found a phone in his brother's house, and even though it didn't have a SIM card, they executed him by firing squad. "They tied him to a post -- not only him, many people. They shot him with guns," remembered Ali.

This reign of fear worked.

For years, most of Mosul was offline and its people ignorant of what was happening outside of their city. They had no idea if their relatives who had managed to escape were safe, and they didn't know if a liberating army was near or if it would ever come.

"We were isolated from the world," said Fatima. "We didn't know what was going on. We used to sleep unsure if we would be alive in the morning. In the day, we weren't sure if we would be alive by the evening. They let us live in horror, fear, destruction, death, illness and hunger."

Others said the same.

"We felt isolated and disconnected from the entire world," said Jamal.

The toll of that isolation and the violence that came with it is clear.

In contrast to the conquest of Mosul, when the fight to liberate the city finally did come in 2017, the battle lasted an unforgiving 10 months.

Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri, April 2018.

No part of the city has been left untouched. Vast portions of the old city lie in ruins with house after house completely decimated. Any buildings left standing are peppered with bullet holes and mortar damage and are probably unsafe to live in.

The city's university, which was once among the finest in the Arab world, lies in tatters. The campus was the site of numerous book burnings and a major battle. Many of its buildings are blown out, others condemned beyond repair.

Despite the destruction, the university has reopened -- even if the campus gates still need to be guarded by fierce SWAT teams in armored vehicles. At midday students eat their lunch in the quad next to what was the university's library, now a shell of a building covered in scorch marks. Life on campus has resumed, and that's emblematic of the city as a whole.

People desperately want life to get back to what it was, even if the state of the city is a constant reminder that things here aren't normal.

ISIS has retreated and can no longer claim to be a territorial threat, but Mosul is still not a safe place. ISIS has sleeper cells embedded within the city. Car bombs are worryingly commonplace, and terrorists are known to set up fake checkpoints along roads to kidnap civilians, journalists and NGO workers.

That's why people in Erbil, a modern and wealthy city just an hour and a half's drive away, warn against travelling to Mosul. ISIS got close to Erbil, but it never managed to take the town, so its buildings went undamaged and its internet connection was never severed. The difference between the two cities is stark. In Erbil, people drive their Range Rovers to dinner at swanky hotels. In Mosul, there's hardly a hotel left standing.

But a basic internet connection allows the people of Mosul to cope with their current situation, because it enables them to at least check up on relatives and feel updated.

"When the internet and mobiles came back, life came back," said Jamal.

People remember when they got online again the first time. Most of them immediately tried to make contact with people they hadn't heard from.

"When the internet and mobiles came back, life came back."

"We didn't know if they were still alive or not," said Ali. "I felt so glad to check Facebook again and communicate with my friends."

Fatima also jumped on social media as soon as ISIS was gone. She started to randomly add people she'd never met out of an enthusiasm to reconnect with the world. Facebook is also one of the most popular news platforms in the Arab world, and social media is often the first place people go to learn about what is happening.

What impressed Fatima the most was the instant gratification of internet shopping. "I was surprised that I could order something online and it would come to my home. This didn't exist in Mosul before the invasion," she said.

But the internet, with all of its connectivity and distraction, can't take away the fear.

There's almost nothing left of the Great Mosque, where ISIS made its grand proclamation, apart from a green dome on which someone has graffitied, "Fuck ISIS." But almost everyone fears that they haven't heard the last of terror here.

"We are very afraid of waking up one day to find they have come back," said Fatima. "They would kill us all. I swear, if they come back, they will kill us all."

Reporter: Benjamin Plackett
Editors: Aaron Souppouris, Jay McGregor
Copy Editor: Megan Giller
Images: Zaid Al-Obeidi/Getty Images (Great Mosque)

Video by Point
Narrator: Benjamin Plackett
Producers: Jay McGregor, Aaron Souppouris
Editor: Anton Novoselov

Quotes translated from Arabic to English with slight edits for clarity.