Army Major Recounts Life Under ISIL In Haj Ali
Major Abu Shakr of the Hashd al-Watani defence forces in Haj Ali commands a little over 600 men. A long-time military professional, he appreciates that he was lucky not to be murdered by ISIL militants while they controlled this area. When he felt their grip tightening, a year after they walked into his district of eight villages, he fled at night to the Peshmerga front line.
With a master’s degree in Arabic language, Abu Shakr is given to lyrical flourishes when talking about that year under ISIL. “I’d have to write a thousand pages to explain what we went through,” says the unusually tall Major.
As was the case with many Sunni districts in Nineveh taken by ISIL in June 2014, residents in Haj Ali were initially won over by the militants who took control from the majority Shia police and security forces. “They told us, ‘You are Sunni and deserve a better life in Iraq’. They said they were tribal fighters, come to work with us.”
In the very early days these welcome strangers opened trading routes previously heavily controlled. “The first days under ISIL were really good. They treated us with humanity and opened the bridge so that we could go to Mosul [to conduct business] for a week.”
After five days the black flag of ISIL was flown over Haj Ali villages. Abu Shakr was immediately concerned, and called army contacts in Salahaddin and Ramadi. He asked which flag was flying over the cities – the current Iraqi flag, the old three star Ba’athist tricolour, or this new black standard. When he was told that the same flag had been raised in the south that was flying over his hometown, his concerns grew.
The Major notes that the invaders were well-equipped, with each militant using the latest Turkish-made military communications, far superior to anything the regular Iraqi army was using. They went against convention by destroying military vehicles in Haj Ali, flush with the massive looting of the army base in Mosul.
As he expected, the situation deteriorated. Within three months as many as 6 senior army generals had been executed. As we drive on the battered main road to the east of Haj Ali, past tents that were recently erected for IDPs from Qayyarah that never arrived, Abu Shakr points to the wadi on our right where the murders took place.
Opposite are the footings of long broken lampposts, from which he says their bodies were hung as a warning to residents. The Major estimates that up to 100 members of the Luhaybi tribe were executed in the two years ISIL controlled the district.
This was just the beginning of the reign of terror. Any air strikes or advances by Iraqi forces were met with the collective punishment of those suspected of having connections with resistance organised by local Sheikhs, Marwan and Nazan. DVDs of atrocities were distributed and played in stores. Residents left their homes only when absolutely necessary. After seven months, salaries from Baghdad dried up.
ISIL imposed the familiar rules – attending mosque was obligatory, as was the growing of a beard. Abu Shakr indulged his nicotine habit once in a while, but only when he had enough perfume to disguise the scent in his facial hair in case of a surprise visit.
He is quick to point out that he rarely witnessed the militants pray, and he saw them drinking water during the daylight hours of Ramadan.
Many of those militants were youngsters, he claims. A few maybe even as young as 12, although he estimates many were about 15-years-old. When Haj Ali was liberated in early July this year, he saw child soldiers fleeing with ammo jackets reaching their knees. His poetic nature surfaces once more as he shakes his head at the fate of the impressionable youths. “Children are empty vessels into which IS was able to pour poison.”
For the time being Abu Shakr has one focus. “We are Iraqis – Hashd al-Shaabi, Peshmerga, al-Watani, all of us only want to free people from ISIL. I would happily fight alongside al-Shaabi, our future is with Iraq.” He fought with the Kurdish Peshmerga to liberate his district.
We are joined by two members of Abu Shakr’s unit. When one of the young men left Haj Ali to join Hashd al-Watani, his fiancé was murdered and his dowry of cash and gold stolen. The other man, Saad, is a relative giant like Abu Shakr. I ask if this height is common in Haj Ali. “We are all great volleyball players, bring your team. In fact, take us to play in your country, we’ll never come back,” he jokes.
When asked if he wants to leave, he says, “Take me anywhere but here.” Abu Shakr shakes his head, “He has no ambition, that’s why he wants to go.”