After more than two years under IS rule in his home city of Mosul, Mohammad al-Jassem finally decided to leave when facing the threat of United States-led coalition airstrikes.
It was October 2016, only a week after Iraqi and allied forces announced their offensive to retake the northern city, when al-Jassem and his wife sold enough of their belongings to afford the journey to northeastern Syria.
The nearly 200km journey west took them and their three children across both Islamic State and Kurdish frontlines. They faced execution if caught by IS forces, who “kill escapees without mercy,” the 26-year-old, now back in Iraq, tells Syria Direct’s Niveen al-Kurdi.
Days later, the family reached relative safety in Rajm a-Sleibi, a Kurdish-controlled border checkpoint, where they stayed for nearly a week until Kurdish YPG authorities moved them to the nearby al-Haul refugee camp in Hasakah province’s remote eastern countryside.
Trapped there by the YPG until the completion of security checks, a-Jassem’s family and thousands of others in the informal encampment surrounding the checkpoint endured “dire humanitarian conditions,” as a UNHCR statement described it last November. There is not enough water, food or shelter there for the thousands of refugees fleeing IS in Mosul and eastern Syria.
“Rajm a-Sleibi is like a slow death,” al-Jassem says. “It’s completely devoid of basic necessities.”
Al-Jassem’s six-year-old daughter was sick with a fever at the time and suffered from a nerve disorder. During the two months the family spent at al-Haul camp, with limited access to medicine, her condition worsened.
A woman from Mosul at al-Houl camp in Syria on January 29, 2017. Photo courtesy of DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Doctors did not have access to the medicine that she needed, he says. Her fever worsened. She developed kidney failure and, eventually, “brain deterioration.”
By the time Iraqi authorities in early January finally moved al-Jassem and his family back across the border to a better-served camp in Iraq’s central Salah a-Din province, it was too late. His daughter died just days later.
Q: How did your city and your daily life change when the Islamic State came? What kinds of things did you see or experience on a daily basis?
The Islamic State destroyed the city in every sense of the word, both culturally and socially.
They incited hatred and fear between people who once lived like brothers. Everyone began to fear their neighbors of different religions or sects.
Work halted almost completely due to the sensitive security situation. IS began dismantling phone networks when they entered the city, to disconnect residents from one another and from the outside world.
Then they started to go out into the streets and enforce penalties on people for every little thing. They pried into our personal lives and asked people: ‘Why are your pants long? Why is your beard short? Why don’t you attend prayers in the mosque?’
This happened to me once. They lashed me 20 times because my pants were too short. Another time, they gave me 20 more lashes because I was late for prayers. They were just searching for any reason to injure people and spread hatred by distorting religion.
All of this suffering still didn’t even come close to the constant feeling of fear within everyone, both young and old, that they could be killed at any moment.
A makeshift shelter in Rajm a-Sleibi, November 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of Radio Alwan.
Q: When did you realize that it was time for you to leave? What obstacles did you face while trying to leave Mosul?
In the beginning, I couldn’t leave at all. The Islamic State kills escapees without mercy. I also didn’t have enough money for the trip.
But then, the bombs began intensifying over the residential neighborhoods.
My wife and I started selling all of our belongings. On October 25, we left in secret so that we could keep our children safe. In addition to my own wife and children, our group included my brother, and his family of six. In total, the children with us ranged from just two to 10 years old.
At first, we planned on heading toward Rabee’ah [a town on the Iraqi side of the Syrian border 107km west of Mosul]. Soon we learned that everyone going from Mosul to Rabee’ah on the old road was getting killed, but there wasn’t any place to cross except on this road. So during the night, we walked 80km until we got to Rajm a-Sleibi, where we stayed for six days.
Q: What were conditions like at Rajm a-Sleibi? When did you leave?
Rajm a-Sleibi is like a slow death.
It’s completely devoid of basic necessities people need in order to survive, including food, water and even shelter. All of the other families around us were carrying small amounts of food with them, but we were all more or less fasting.
As for water, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) allowed us some spring water due to the lack of potable water. Faced with the choice between dirty water and thirst, we chose the bad water. I did occasionally receive some clean, fresh water from the YPG because my daughter was sick at the time and had a recurring fever.
After four days of suffering in Rajm a-Sleibi, officials from al-Haul refugee camp [14 kilometers west of the Iraqi-Syrian border] transported women and children into the camp. Two days later they transported the men as well.
We were lucky to be taken to al-Haul. After we left, the number of newcomers who entered Rajm a-Sleibi every six days increased, and they were forced to remain there for longer periods of time without any support.
Refugees from Mosul at al-Houl camp on December 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Q: Can you describe what al-Haul camp was like? What kinds of services were available?
When we arrived at the camp, Kurdish forces searched us and took our identification papers to prevent us from leaving—it felt like we were in prison. Then they recorded our names with the UNHCR, took family pictures of us and gave each of us serial numbers.
The camp was divided into one large camp on one side, and on the other side was an assortment of old stone houses with roofs made of wood, mats and mud. Each house had its own number. Because we were new, they put us in the camp section.
At first there was very little water. We only received bread, and bought our own vegetables from vendors who went around the camp. Then the UNHCR gave us coupons worth SP55,000 ($256) to use at one grocery store in the camp. Although some families had more members than others, each family still received the same amount of money.
Q: Were there sufficient medical services?
There was a clinic run by the Red Crescent that had a nurse, but never enough medicine. For the most part, it was never very crowded, and in case of particularly bad illnesses, the patients were brought to a clinic in Hasakah province.
This is what happened to my daughter. She suffered from cerebral atrophy [a nerve disorder] and went to the clinic in Hasakah. They gave me a medical report saying that the medicine she needed could only be found in the regime-controlled part of Hasakah province.
I crossed into the areas under regime control, afraid, but returned empty-handed because the owner of the pharmacy I went to said that my daughter’s medicine was only available further east. Unfortunately, obtaining medicine was virtually impossible.
I took my daughter to clinics in Hasakah, but nothing helped and her condition became worse. Eventually, I lost her.
After her death, I learned from a doctor in Iraq that she had been suffering from an internal fever that no camp doctor could treat. The fever developed into kidney failure and brain deterioration and so on, until she passed away.
Q: What processes did you go through to leave al-Haul?
We requested permission to move back to the border area, but [the Kurdish authorities] refused and asked if we had a local Kurdish sponsor.
The Iraqi government demanded that Iraqis in Syrian camps be moved, and these people were divided into groups. I was in the first group. When it came time to leave, registration happened late at night and they didn’t finish distributing identification papers. Some people got all of their papers back, others received some of them, and some of them didn’t get anything back—we were among the ones who didn’t get any papers back.
When we left the day after registration, we didn’t take anything with us except the copies we had of our registration. Kurdish authorities moved us from al-Haul camp to Faysh Khabour [a Kurdish-controlled border town in the district of Dohuk in northern Iraq, 130km northeast of al-Haul]. The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration then moved us from Feesh Khabour to Salah al-Din via Erbil and Kirkuk. To this day, I’m still asking for my identification papers, but without success.