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Adam Peck

Shell Shocked: The Extraordinary Story Of How One Man Escaped ISIS

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"Shell Shocked: The Extraordinary Story Of How One Man Escaped ISIS"

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“I don’t want to live in a city where ISIS is,” Hasan said. “I don’t accept their faith, I don’t accept their ideas, their opinions. There is no city for ISIS and I. No city can hold us together.”

Even over the electronically distorted crackle of a Skype connection, Hasan sounded exhausted. It was only 7:00 in the evening here in Washington, D.C., but he was in Duhok, Iraq, where it was almost 2:00AM. He had trouble sleeping, but not for reasons usually cited by young people in their 20s, such as late nights with friends or stress over final exams. Instead, Hasan, who requested ThinkProgress not publish his real name out of safety concerns, couldn’t sleep because he was still recovering from his narrow escape from murderous religious extremists.

“Life here … it changes the way you live,” he said, his voice soft so as not to arouse slumbering neighbors or suspicion. “All the families that I arrived with have insomnia, so usually we don’t actually get to sleep until 6:00AM.”

A student from Mosul, Hasan is one of over a million Iraqis who have abandoned their homes in recent months* to escape the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an armed group of Muslim extremists that has been paving a terrifying path of violence and destruction across Syria and Iraq for over a year. Their rampage in Iraq in particular has sparked a traditional refugee crisis with bordering nations and created thousands of what humanitarian organizations often call “IDPs” — Internally Displaced Persons. Hasan and more than 500,000 Mosul residents are among these IDPs, and the situation is especially grave for the country’s religious minorities — including Christians who have seen their ancient religious artifacts destroyed and the tens of thousands of Yazidi Iraqis recently trapped on the Sinjar Mountains. This is because ISIS’s reign of terror has been largely guided by the idea that religious difference in Iraq — especially when it disagrees with ISIS theology — can only end in bloodshed.

Yet Hasan’s story is of a very different Iraq, one where people of various religions and ethnicities aren’t tearing each other apart, but banding together to survive ISIS’s onslaught. Hasan, for example, is a Sunni Muslim, a mainstream branch of Islam of which ISIS claims to be a uniquely radical subset. But Hasan worries ISIS’s actions could incite division and perpetuate the false idea that average Iraqis like himself — especially Sunnis — somehow endorse ISIS.

“The way some Congressmen and people in the White House are talking about this in the media … Basically they’re saying that Sunnis support ISIS, and they’re not going to target ISIS if they are in Sunni areas,” he said. “So imagine a Kurd or a Shia Muslim reading that news in Mosul. It just [worsens] feelings of hatred [between groups].”

The siege of Mosul

Hasan said he remembered ISIS’s arrival in Mosul on June 6 as an explosive one, marked by loud, booming, and unsettlingly indiscriminate exchanges of artillery fire between the Iraqi Army and the black-clad militants.

“It started on a Friday night,” he said. “If you can imagine, my heart skipped a beat with every [artillery shell] that I heard fired. All you heard was about how these places [near the front] were getting shelled, randomly shelled — houses were getting hit there. [I could hear] the artillery being shot to the far side [of the city], to fall randomly…Maybe on terrorists, or maybe on civilian people.”

The situation quickly worsened, with roughly 800 ISIS soldiers wreaking havoc and pushing frightened Mosul residents to the eastern section of the city. Still, Hasan said he and many others expected the Iraqi Army to eventually beat back the extremists.

“[The military] had a huge base, and it was a really, really massive base,” he said. “We thought they would fight for a really long time and it wouldn’t fall that easily.”

ISIS forces in Beiji, Iraq.

ISIS forces in Beiji, Iraq.

CREDIT: AP

But as ISIS forces laid siege to the city for “4 or 5 days,” according to Hasan, the resolve of the Iraqi military appeared to weaken. Hasan said ISIS concentrated their attacks on bridges that connected the two sides of Mosul, spurring families to huddle with strangers in their homes behind military checkpoints. As the fighting escalated, Hasan reported hearing a “massive explosion” — presumably a bomb — on one of the main bridges, signaling a breach of the eastern section of the city and the slow collapse of the Iraqi military. Rumors still fly as to what actually triggered the breakdown of national military forces in Mosul, which reportedly outnumbered ISIS forces 40:1. Some point to the wave of desertions in the lead up to the battle, a number of whom were Sunni, giving rise the belief among some that the army is simply a tool for Shiites to maintain power in the country — even though many Shiite soldiers also left their posts.

But Hasan said he thought ISIS’s notorious use of suicide-bomber tactics were also partly to blame.

“We heard news that the [Iraqi Army] Second brigade and their base was threatened; that, if they fought hard, they would get a truck full of explosives,” he said.

Whatever the reason, Hasan said that Iraqi military forces steadily retreated from ISIS forces, leaving behind a skeleton crew of police officers to fend off the militants.

“[Iraqi] generals and officers started abandoning their soldiers, rank by rank,” Hasan said. “Only the local police force stayed there in their police stations. They’re the only ones who really fought ISIS.”

Hasan and his family held out for as long as they could, hopeful that the Iraqi Army would stand their ground. But eventually ISIS’s black flag — and the ravages of war — found its way to their streets.

“At around 1:00AM-2:00AM, we started hearing gunshots,” he said. “We thought that ISIS was in our neighborhood and the [army] was going to fight them. But after a half an hour, my brother called and said all the personnel … had fled the base. So we decided to flee the city.”

Map showing the area of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Hasan currently resides and which ISIS forces have begun to threaten. NOTE: map does NOT show land controlled by ISIS.

Map showing the area of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Hasan currently resides and which ISIS forces have begun to threaten. NOTE: map does NOT show land controlled by ISIS.

CREDIT: Adam Peck

The attempt

Hearing the angry pop of small arms fire outside his family’s hideout, Hasan was initially wary of leaving the safe house. “We didn’t want to get caught up in the crossfire,” he said. But as fear and desperation set in, he and his family grabbed what they could and fled in the middle of the night towards the northern city of Duhok, Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have left Mosul since it fell into the hands of ISIS in June, most of whom journeyed to cities and villages in northern Iraq. Duhok in particular has become something of a haven for IDPs, currently harboring around 200,000 displaced Iraqis, according to the United Nations High Commission For Refugees.

But harboring this massive influx of people is a complicated process, and cities in northern Iraq initially struggled to control the flow of frightened masses. Hasan’s late-night flight from Mosul, for instance, was abruptly halted when he arrived at a checkpoint guarded by the peshmerga, the military fighting force of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Kurdish people, originally from Iran, currently populate whole sections of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, but have long clashed with other nations and ethnic groups in their pursuit of an independent nation to call their own. They speak their own language and claim a number of different religious traditions — including multiple brands of Islam. The Kurds, like virtually everyone else, vehemently oppose ISIS, and have become increasingly involved in efforts to combat them as the extremist group pushes further into their territory. The U.S. has even agreed to begin directly providing Kurdish soldiers with light weapons.

“We arrived at [the Kurdish checkpoint] at about 10:00am in the morning,” Hasan said. “And, wow, like, the entire city was there. Half of the people who had fled the city that night were there … There were lots and lots of people, and lots of cars … some were Kurdish, some were Christian, and some were [Muslim] Arabs. But they wouldn’t allow anyone in — they wouldn’t even allow the Kurdish to enter until 11:00am the next day. So we stayed the whole night there till 11:00am. We slept in our cars.”

The wait was grueling, but Hasan said he doesn’t harbor ill feelings toward those guarding the checkpoint. He said he understood their fear — the fear of massive crushes of people, and the fear of ISIS.

“They had every right to be scared,” he said. “The city was falling, people were fleeing. They had the right to be scared at that point.”

Ultimately, the wait proved too much for Hasan and his family — especially for his young niece, only two months old. Stuck on a road with thousands of other refugees and sweltering in blistering Iraqi heat that can exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit, their situation became dire. Hasan’s family was eventually faced with an agonizing choice: stick by the checkpoint and risk harming the baby, or hole up in Mosul and await the wrath of ISIS. After a brief, difficult discussion, Hasan said they decided that the best way to protect the newborn was to return to the city and “accept fate.”

But when the family arrived in Mosul, they were confronted with the grim hallmarks of an ISIS occupation. “When I got back, I saw all the cars — Army cars — burning in the road, Iraqi flags burned up pretty much everywhere, and where there were once Iraqi flags raised now there were ISIS flags,” Hasan said.

“And we started hearing stories of people who were…” Hasan said, his voice trailing off. “It was just too much for me. I decided it’s not the city for me anymore.”

The escape

The ruthless tactics of ISIS are well documented. Reports abound of ISIS forces destroying ancient religious shrines and grave sites, murdering groups of people en mass, and crucifying the bodies of those they accuse of apostasy. They have also reportedly enacted multiple beheadings, with one Iraqi woman in Mosul telling the BBC that she saw a “row of decapitated soldiers and policemen” in the city. In most cases, ISIS provides its potential victims with a choice between three grim options: convert to a radical form of Islam, pay a tax and live under their tyrannical rule, or die.

Refugees from Mosul near Irbil, Iraq.

Refugees from Mosul near Irbil, Iraq.

CREDIT: AP

But for Hasan in Mosul, there was a fourth choice: run. After witnessing the carnage wrought by ISIS, he immediately renewed his efforts to escape the city, making two more attempts to flee. He tapped into his diverse network of friends for assistance — first staying with a Yazidi friend in a nearby village, then holing up with a Shia Muslim companion. He was grateful for their kindness, but it wasn’t enough to unblock the roads or erase the looming threat of death at the hands of extremists. When Hasan was staying with his Shia friend, news broke that the road connecting the village to Mosul was no longer secure, exposing the region to an attack by ISIS. Fearing for his life, Hasan’s family returned and whisked him away — just in time.

“About 30 or 40 minutes after my brother picked me up, [ISIS] got access to their village,” Hasan said.

Finally, on his fourth attempt to escape Mosul — or after about three days of trying — Hasan was allowed through a peshmerga checkpoint and into Duhok. The passage brought a wave of relief, but also reawakened an aching concern for those left behind.

“No one was 100 percent secure in Mosul,” he said.

ISIS’s increasingly brazen tactics have garnered international attention, and nations such as the U.S. are beginning to mobilize cautious responses to help IDPs like Hasan. But when asked about President Barack Obama’s recent decision allowing U.S. forces to begin targeted air strikes against ISIS and drop aid to refugees recently trapped on the Sinjar Mountains, Hasan was only cautiously optimistic.

“Generally, I feel glad,” he said. “I’m kind of relieved that finally some action is being taken. But … [the strikes] are so limited. I think it’s only going to find a minor solution to the problem. And the way they came so late … It does not give us much hope.”

Hasan was relatively measured about the global political debate over how to respond to ISIS’s campaign of terror, but admitted the issue remained very personal for him: he still has family trapped in Mosul.

“My brother left [to return to his family], and mother stayed with for as long as she could — for another week,” he said. “But my mother had to go back to Mosul … Because my dad is suffering from a terminal illness. He is in the last stages. And being away from my mother for him is…”

Hasan’s voice cracked, suppressing a sob. He paused for a moment, then expressed deep sadness over not being able to visit parents during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

“[During Ramadan], I wasn’t able to wake up and hold her hand and kiss her hand and say ‘eid mubarak [blessed celebration], mother,” he said, sighing. “But we talk all the time. And we’re thankful to God because … I see a lot of people who have it much worse than us. We thank God we didn’t go through so much that a lot of people are still going through.”

Compassion from unexpected sources

Even as Hasan described chilling events that reflect humanity at its worst, he was quick to point out unexpected glimmers of compassion from people different from himself. By contrast, ISIS has been universally condemned by political and faith leaders around the world for its unmitigated hatred of any group that disagrees with its totalitarian religious beliefs. They have backed up their radical disposition with ruthless, real-world violence, ignoring the Qur’an’s peaceful teachings and enacting unspeakable atrocities on Muslims, Christians, and the Yazidis, a religious minority that ISIS is threatening to wipe out because they (falsely) believe they worship the devil.

ISIS’s hatred of other religions is rooted in their radical version of Salafi Muslim theology, a (contested) subset of Sunnism, which seeks a return to a way of life that closely mimics the habits of the first Muslim community — or at least ISIS’s interpretation thereof. Their beliefs also include the reestablishment of a caliphate, an older Muslim concept whereby an Islamic state is founded by a leader, or caliph, who serves as the political and religious authority for all Muslims.

Granted, ISIS’s audacious claim to a caliphate has been widely rejected by Sunni as well as Shia Muslims — the latter of which makes up around 65 percent of Iraq’s faithful. This is partly because ISIS’s version of an Islamic state includes the systemic oppression of religious minorities, a policy not shared by past iterations of the caliphate. Still, the radical beliefs and violent practices of ISIS could exacerbate longstanding religious divisions in Iraq, where minority faith groups such as Shabaks, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Yarsan, and Christians are often targets of religious violence. ISIS also stands to worsen ancient tensions between Sunnis and Shias — who split several hundred years ago over conflicting claims about the identity of Islam’s first legitimate caliph — and the growing immigrant crisis threatens to renew conflicts between Arabs and Kurds.

But Hasan, who is Sunni, said he has seen a very different face of Iraq’s religious and ethnic landscape over the past few weeks. He noted that during his multiple frantic attempts to flee Mosul, he was taken in by representatives of at least three different Iraqi religious groups — none of whom belonged to his own faith tradition. Despite the intolerant claims of self-righteous militants, Hasan said it is kindness, not apostasy, that binds together those most hated by ISIS.

“After 3 days of trying, spending one night in [my car], one night in a Yazidi village in a Yazidi house with a friend of mine, and another in a Shia village…My first day in Duhok I slept in a Christian home,” he said. “It was, like, every component of Iraq! Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Arab, Christian!”

* Although Hasan’s account of the battle for Mosul and the subsequent refugee situation closely reflects information reported by the United Nations and several major news outlets, ThinkProgress cannot independently verify most of the specific details of his story.

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