Among photos of Iraqis celebrating freedom, as towns are retaken from ISIL, it’s common to see people smoking. From young boys on the banks of the Tigris in Qayyarah, to elderly women puffing in the shade in Debaga IDP camp, cigarettes are a symbol of liberty, forbidden by ISIL.
As Yalla shared Eid with residents of Haj Ali and recently arrived IDPs from nearby Ganous village, the offering of a smoke was as integral to introduction as a handshake and “as-salāmu ʿalaykum”. Refusing on health grounds is accepted with a friendly shrug.
Seated at a desk in the courtyard of a long unused primary school, Aboud is of course smoking. The index finger of his free hands taps intermittently on a pack of thin cigarettes. As Yalla joins him, a crowd forms, every man and boy keen to recount life in Ganous.
“It was hard, and getting harder every day. One kilo of sugar cost 25,000 dinars, and a packet of Akhtamar,” Aboud says holding up one of the cheap Armenian cigarettes, “cost 50,000 dinars ($40). I could afford a single cigarette every week to ten days.”
Smoking is a common, and risky, act of defiance in territory held by ISIL. Regarded as haram by the organisation, Aboud says those caught with cigarettes were subject to lashes. The number meted out depended on the mood of the militant delivering the punishment.
Whether by luck or judgement, Aboud’s habit was never detected, but some of his sons felt the wrath of the extremists. He sent one of them to Haj Ali ten days previously, and they were reunited when Aboud arrived on Saturday morning.
His eldest son, Salah, was taken by ISIL on Arafa (the eve of Eid al Adha) 2014. He holds on to hope that he has survived, even though militants have told him that Salah is dead.
A second son, Rabah, escaped Ganous eight months ago. He is sat with us, now a member of Hashd al-Watani. He looks younger than his 22 years, and explains that he was consistently ostracised by ISIL, forced to live outside the village for days at a time, without food or water.
Every escapee takes their lives in the their hands. If discovered attempting to flee, regular civilians had to pay a $500 fine, and still risk execution at the hands of ISIL. Former members of the Iraqi security forces were fined double if caught escaping – and faced certain beheading without wasta.
Life in Ganous is harsh, and controlled by an ISIL military commander who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Muslim, and a security and intelligence chief named as Abu Anas. They oversee a force of around 200 militants. Another recent escapee, Basim, raises his voice to be heard. “The commanders were Iraqi, but the others came from China, Belarus…” A brief pause allows others to chip in. They claim the extremists were from as far afield as Tajikistan, Chechnya, Syria and Egypt.
Ganous has one of ISIL’s infamous ‘media centres’, a repurposed café that plays videos of executions and battles, designed to maintain a sense of terror among the population. Aboud explains that he rarely left his house, and had no money, like many other residents.
“The only thing we think of all the time is to get ISIL out of the village, and live in peace and safety. I lived two years without any income, so I sold everything – my refrigerator, my air cooler. All I have in my home now is walls, it’s the same for everyone who was awam.”