ERBIL, Iraq — “All the time, we were confronted with death,” said Younos Amsāh, 34. “If you made a little mistake, they’d come and kill you.”
Together with his mother, Myriam, 62; brother, Jibreel, 31; and sister, Hawaa, 28; Younos lived in Mosul throughout the Islamic State’s occupation of the city, which began in June 2014.
The Amsāh family, all Syriac Catholics, finally escaped the city March 12 and fled to a suburb of Erbil, where they are currently living in a camp of caravans for internally displaced people.
As they settled into their new makeshift accommodation, they recounted their experiences March 19 to the Register, sharing vivid accounts of life in Mosul over the past two and a half years. For their own protection, their identities have been changed and no photographs were taken.
Once with a significant Christian population and proud ancient Christian history going back to the biblical story of Jonah, Mosul is now all but destroyed, as Iraqi and Kurdish troops, backed by allied air power, seek to liberate it.
Government forces evacuated the Amsāh family, along with many others, as soldiers proceeded to seize various neighborhoods of the city from the Islamic State (known as ISIS or Daesh), which once had plans to make Mosul one of the centers of its new caliphate. The six-month liberation is entering its final phase, although, at the time of writing, ISIS fighters were reportedly mounting a strong defense in Mosul’s western district.
Younos, who acted as the family spokesman, began by explaining the family’s predicament. Initially, the prospects did not seem so dire, but things steadily worsened.
“When ISIS came, we left Mosul for four days,” Younos recalled. “Then our neighbors called us and told us there was nothing bad going on: ‘’We are at peace, so why not return?’ they said, so we went back, and it was normal at that time. It was better at the beginning.”
Not long afterward, while they were lunching on some rations, they received a telephone call. “Have you heard the decision of Islamic State?” came the voice at the end of the line. “You are Christian, and ISIS has said Christians must pay the jizya (tax paid by non-Muslims living in a Muslim land).”
“It was pay the jizya, convert to Islam, leave or be killed,” concluded Younos.
The family verified the news and decided it would be better to pay the tax, as only the young men have to do so, not the women. But when they went to pay it, the ISIS officials said they had “canceled the jizya for Christians.’”
Younos and the family then left for nearby Qaraqosh, at the time still predominantly Christian, although ISIS would take it just 10 days later. But life would be very expensive in the town, so they quickly decided to return to Mosul.
“When we got back, they said we must convert to Islam, and so we converted to Islam,” Younos said. “The next day, they came and took us to the court, and we said the verse of conversion to Islam.”
He and the family felt in good conscience that it was acceptable to feign conversion, as they believed ISIS was only going to be there for a very short time. Like the lapsi of the third century, the Amsāḥ family rationalized that, in the face of persecution, it was permissible to publicly deny the faith.
“All the people of Mosul told us that because of how ISIS had treated Christians, they will not stay more than one month.” Even the Muslims, Younos said, thought ISIS would be “gone in a month.”
But two and a half “very difficult” years followed.
The Islamic State militants were popular in the beginning, but “month after month, they became worse,” Younos recalled. “They started with the policemen.”
Mosul once had many police, and they initially asked ISIS “to forgive them” for being law enforcement officers.
“They lived a normal life to start with, but soon after, they killed them,” Younos said, including one officer friend of the family. “He disappeared, and we never saw him again, so we presumed he had also been killed.”
Cruel and Barbaric Repression
Other aspects of life became considerably repressive, cruel and barbaric: ISIS cut off the limbs of thieves, hospital doctors could not treat women, and medical care became very costly. All the time, they lived in constant fear.
Death was a constant reality, Younos said, and although he did not witness any atrocities himself, if they “made just a little mistake, they could come and kill you.”
If ISIS members caught a person smoking indoors, they would whip him 30 times and even smell a person’s fingers to check for signs of smoking. ISIS banned playing computer games and the wearing of shirts with the names of international soccer teams.
“If they found you had a SIM card [for your mobile phone], they would kill you,” he said.
For 28-year-old Hawaa, Younos’ sister, being in Mosul was like living in a prison. “If she didn’t have important things to go out for, she’d just stay at home,” said Younos. “As we had ‘converted,’ no one came and asked us, and most didn’t know we had a girl in the house.”
They did not attend the mosque every Friday but ISIS would be “watching us all the time,” he said. Even so, they managed to keep their Christian faith, and they didn’t pray the Islamic prayers because they were afraid of saying something wrong and then being punished.
“We prayed to Jesus in our house, but we had to take all the devotional pictures down,” Younos said. “Sometimes, when we saw a Mass or something on television, we became emotional because we were still Christians.”
He said it felt as though they “wanted you to make a mistake so they could kill you,” and, on average, they would slay 20 people in different parts of Mosul every day for little offenses and then leave the bodies on the street for three days.
Younos, who ran a shop in Mosul, said only one or two Christian neighbors feigned conversion like them, the rest had fled the city.
“They almost all left, had their belongings looted, but if they returned, they converted,” he said.
Looking back, he believed that had he paid the jizya and remained a Christian, “they’d still have killed me, I’m sure,” or, when the allied forces started liberating Mosul by bombing strategic areas of the city, they would have used the Christians as human shields.
Like in the days of the Second World War, the family’s only means of contact with the outside world was a radio, through which they first learned of the imminent liberation.
“We were very happy,” Younos recalled, saying they sheltered in the safest part of their house, although they would not have survived a direct hit to the home.
As the allied forces arrived, ISIS fighters blew up the internal walls of houses in order to run house to house and avoid capture.
“When the houses were hit, they’d move on to the next, like rats,” Younos said, adding that this tactic means many properties are now destroyed.
Learning that the Iraqi army was close, Islamic State fighters entered the Amsāh house, exchanged weapons and then left.
“We waited until a neighbor told us it was safe to go out, then people started to smoke, drink, the women took off their headscarves, and all the 20 families in our street started to celebrate,” Younos said.
He believes most of the surviving militants have fled the city, seeking refuge in Syria, or have been arrested. But he was pessimistic about whether ISIS had gone for good. “There will be sleeper cells,” he said.
Now, safe in Erbil, they are hoping to leave Iraq, as they believe it’s too dangerous: Having feigned conversion to Islam and returned to being Christians, they will be considered apostates. And like many Iraqi Christians, they have also had enough of the violence, which had begun long before ISIS.
“Christians had been leaving Mosul before ISIS because of kidnappings, murders and so on,” Younos said, adding that even Muslims are not likely to want to live there for a while.
“For us, it’s impossible to go back — because of our ‘conversion,’ they’ll kill us,” he explained. “But for others it is very difficult, too, because Mosul is completely destroyed. There is currently no life in the city.”
Younos said, “We now want to go to a good country, to a free country.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
He recently spent three days visiting liberated towns and refugee camps in Iraq.