Dreams, friends and the Internet: how an Iraqi teenager did to survive ISIS
Ferah led a normal life in Mosul when the city was taken by extremists. This is the story of 3 years of martyrdom.
This is a story that AP published by journalists Bram Janssen and Lee Keath. Here is a summary of the story.
The three women tensed when their taxi approached the checkpoint guarded by fighters from the extremist group ISIS. Everyone in Mosul feared the checkpoints; you could not predict what those armed men would do motivated by their fanaticism to destroy any hint of “sin”. One of them looked at Ferah, the girl in the back seat.
The 14-year-old girl wore the required veil over her face, but had forgotten to lower the cloth to cover her eyes too. A combatant yelled at him to do it. But Ferah was not wearing gloves, another of the required pieces. If he fixed the veil, they would see his bare hands and things would get worse.
In an attempt to disappear, he sank into his seat.
The men exploded and shouted that they would take Ferah, his mother and his sister before the hisba, the feared religious police that sanctioned those who violated the group’s orders. They dragged the driver out and interrogated him. “How do you know these women?”
Ferah felt the men lurking behind the window, fearsome, huge and muscular, with a beard that reached to his chest. His mother paled. A simple visit to a friend’s house was becoming a disaster.
And suddenly, it’s over. Somehow, the driver reassured the armed men.
Already safe in his friend’s house, Ferah collapsed. Not only did he tremble, his entire body convulsed.
This was the new nightmare world in which the young Iraqi woman would have to live.
Ferah had never heard of ISIS until the militants took power. When the summer of 2014 began, the world opened before her. He had finished the first course in a new private school, the best in the city, which he loved. I had made new friends. His classes were in English, his favorite course. I dreamed of being an interior designer.
The headlights illuminated the streets around Ferah’s house around midnight. Neighbors with suitcases were piled up in cars, soldiers threw bags inside trucks, driving away at full speed under the sound of artillery and gunfire. On the other side of the city, an exodus of panic broke out. Ferah’s two older sisters, who were married and lived nearby, called to say they were fleeing to the nearby Kurdish area. Her best friend from school told her by message that her family was going to Turkey.
Ferah’s family stayed.
The next morning, he woke up to a world ruled by militiamen, referred to contemptuously by his Arabic acronym, Daesh.
As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Ferah no longer wanted to leave. It was too dangerous. He took refuge in his room, far from the horror, of the stories of men riddled in public squares and women stoned to death.
His refuge was the words. He placed a candle on an old glass and, with its dim light, pulled out his iPad and wrote on his Facebook wall. A few lines a day about a feeling or thought, a fear or a hope.
“The future disappeared, it broke down,” he wrote.
Every day there were more fanatical men. They were everywhere, with their long beards and robes just above the ankle. They never smiled and seemed angry all the time.
When he returned to school, it was also under the control of the group. The private school I attended before was closed, so it went to a public school. She was sure that some girls in her class were from the Daesh: they had their faces covered by veils, they almost never talked to others and when they did it was to make severe judgments.
Ferah was afraid of them. He stopped attending classes.
It was like a plague that spread and transformed people. One by one, the remaining friends of Ferah said goodbye to go to Turkey or Kurdish areas.
The relatives and friends of the family who stayed passed by the house frequently and commented on the news. Ferah learned about the laws they had imposed. The Daesh forbade smoking. During Ramadan, they arrested people suspected of not observing the fast. Those who violated the rules were flogged in public places.
Patrols of the religious police of the hisba proliferated and more and more rules were imposed. Women were required to wear the niqab: black robes, gloves and veil that hide all bodily form and keep them away from the eyes of men even in public.
Ferah hated using the niqab. I hated the Daesh. And he hated his life.
He wrote his ideas in English on sheets of paper. Why is nothing as expected? Why is this happening? He liked to write down his deepest thoughts, which he did not want anyone to know, in English, not in Arabic. Then he would cut the paper, just as he would have liked to cut his reality, and keep the pieces in a box in his closet.
But late at night, after hours sitting on the bed, tried something different. He wrote in Arabic.
He posted it on his Facebook page and, interestingly, he felt better – “like a light at the end of a mysterious path”.
The streets were a danger.
Nowhere in Mosul could one escape of the Daesh terror.
Once, Ferah went with her parents to see what was in the house of her older sister. They did not dare to stop the car, they passed slowly ahead. The house had been confiscated and now supporters of ISIS families lived there. Ferah saw them come in and out with their short tunics, beards and veils, as if it were their house.
The watchful and obsessed eyes of the hisba captured “mistakes” from women that they themselves did not know they were committing. From outside the house of Ferah’s uncle they took a girl. His tunic had opened and they saw something red underneath, a touch of forbidden color in what must have been a totally black outfit.
In a nearby neighborhood, a girl about 12 years old had climbed to her roof. By chance, a child in the next house was in his at the same time. They were seen and there were suspicions.
The Daesh arrested them and killed them both. The girl was stoned in the street in front of her house, the punishment for adultery. Everyone in the neighborhood talked about what happened. They commented that when they stopped stoning her and took the girl’s body, there remained a warm smell of musk, one of the aromas of paradise, an unequivocal sign that she was innocent and God had taken her away.
Definitely do not go up to the roof.
The only safe place was between the four walls.
Your small works
In her room, Ferah delved into a world that was becoming increasingly elaborate.
At night, I explored the network. He discovered a whole microculture of interior design enthusiasts on YouTube. Your favorite: anything from the IKEA chain. He practiced his English watching cartoons. He saw “Assault on power,” with Channing Tatum, over and over again until he understood almost all the dialogues.
The best was his friendship with Rania.
They had similar tastes. Rania sent him a picture of him and they struck up a friendship. They decorate rooms online, they exchange furniture photos.
Ferah had never seen Rania in person, yet their friendship was deeper than any she had ever had in childhood. Probably because he was born of adversity. In her worst moments, Ferah listened to the announcement of a message from Rania and tried to open it quickly, knowing that those messages would make her smile.
At least in the world she created in her room she could find comfort and walk far on the net with her friends, her writings and her readers.
But that also disappeared.
On July 19, 2016, on his 16th birthday, the Daesh disconnected the Internet.
ISIS cordoned off the population of Mosul. He feared that spies would lead US air strikes as Iraqi forces further south began their march into the city with the aim of recovering the most important stronghold of Daesh.
Ferah was alone.
He started taking sewing classes with a friend of the family. He loved it. Sometimes he stayed in the sewing machine until three in the morning and eventually made almost 20 outfits, some gave them away.
And he wrote – now for her, not for her followers. He wrote long reflections where he challenged himself and faced his doubts.
I only missed one person. For Rania’s birthday, he wrote a message.
I could receive a weak signal on your SIM card in the upper floor of your house. He would stand in the right place, hold the phone up, press send, pray that his message, byte by byte, would reach the friend he had never met.
In January 2017, the Daesh broke into the world of Ferah.
Iraqi forces fought their way east from Mosul in a tough urban war. The militiamen took houses and barricaded themselves in them for a bloody struggle with Baghdad forces, then went to the next neighborhood. The city was rocked by gunfire, car bombs and air strikes.
One afternoon, there was a knock on the front gate. They did not respond So the armed men of the Daesh made their way to gunshots.
“All outside”, the men ordered. They wanted the house; the roof would give his snipers a good view. Ferah was enraged to see these armed children, no older than 17 and no doubt from villages outside Mosul, shouting at her father, a respectable man in his 50s. Even in this critical moment prior to the battle, they rebuked him for not having a beard.
Ferah’s family took refuge with a neighbor. Piled up in a single room, they could hear the fighters on one side, up and down stairs. They waited for hours to weaken the din of the battle.
Just before dawn, a blow. The explosion of a missile, a flurry of shots. The buzzing that always precedes an air attack was getting closer and closer.
Then a huge explosion. The room darkened. Part of the roof collapsed. They had difficulty breathing and the neighbor’s little children screamed in the dark. Ferah and her sister also shouted. Ferah’s father was silent, stunned.
And as the storm came, it happened. The Daesh backed down and the troops of the 8th Iraqi Army dispersed through the streets surrounding the house of Ferah. Almost after three years, their neighborhood was out of the control of the fanatics and in the hands of the government.
Without knowing what was happening, Ferah, her parents and her sister left their shelter.
“The family of the burning house is coming out, do not shoot”, said an agent on his radio.
Ferah stood in front of her house. The flames came out of the windows in a way he did not dare to look at. The fire was in his room.
The Daesh fighters had blown up explosives in the kitchen before fleeing.
When he slowed the fire, the family went into the house. Ferah’s room had melted. The walls were black, the paint peeling on painful strips. The ceiling had fallen on his bed.
But it was not the end.
After the fire, the family stayed with Ferah’s older sister in Irbil. From there, the father supervised the reconstruction of his house. Ferah took a refresher course for high school and passed. When he finally resumed classes, he would only be one grade behind.
They visited Ferah’s sister in Dahuk and met her daughter, now almost three years old.
One morning, Ferah went through a school in Dahuk and found a group of students gathered in the hallways before entering class. I was looking for one in particular.
Rania did not know who she was until Ferah stood in front of her.
“Really? Did you come?” Rania cried.
“This is the Ferah you’ve talked to all these years!” The other girls laughed.
The two young women embraced for 10 long minutes. Rania showed Ferah her phone: she had taken screenshots of her best conversations. Among them, was Ferah’s birthday message.
In Mosul, Ferah’s room has new paint, but it’s not the sanctuary it once was.
Nothing is normal, but it has freedom. She is still a dreamer, but no longer enters the Daesh.
Sometimes, reread one of your favorite texts. A love song to herself. He wrote it when he was hopeless, praising the good that he discovered in his spiritual interior.
“Good morning to all those who feel the beauty inside them – no matter who they bother,” he reads silently. “Glory to the light of the endings that weakens and the explosion of new beginnings, nothing will last so long”.
Fearing their safety in Mosul, Ferah and her family spoke with The Associated Press on the condition that their full names were not used and that some details that could identify them were not mentioned.