MOSUL: The horrors they endured under the Daesh group may be in the past for the people of Iraq, but the traumatic memories remain.
Now a research project is recording their witness testimonies for posterity. Omar Mohammed, founder of the Mosul Eye project, rose to prominence during the Daesh reign by bravely sharing news via Twitter from inside the city under jihadist rule.
Years later, he wants to make sure nothing is forgotten.
“When I was in Mosul recording everything myself, I felt the need to include all the people, to record our history in their own voice,” he said.
Bereaved mother Umm Mohammed, 55, is among those who have shared their memories of terror, suffering and loss with the non-governmental group.
The extremists came for her family one night in 2015 and took away her son Ahmed, then a 27-year-old construction worker. His brother Mohammed, 10 years younger, then made a fateful choice: he decided to join the ranks of Daesh, with a daring plan to find and liberate Ahmed.
“I told him: ‘My son, don’t join them’,” recounted Umm Mohammed, her hair under a dark scarf.
“He said: ‘It’s none of your business. I’m going to get my brother. I’ll go into the prisons.’“
The elderly woman said, with sadness in her voice, that Mohammed left “and never came back.”
And neither did Ahmed.
Both are presumed to be among the many killed under the group’s self-declared “caliphate” that cut across swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Umm Mohammed said she suspects the jihadists felt that Mohammed “was not one of them. They must have thought he was a spy.”
Speaking about those dark days years later for the Mosul Eye project has brought up a storm of emotions, but ultimately had a cathartic effect for Umm Mohammed.
Mosul Eye, with funding from the US Agency for International Development, has trained 10 students to conduct and film interviews, mostly in Mosul but testimonies have also been collected from people hailing from elsewhere in Iraq.
The youngest of the 70 witnesses are barely 10 years old. Others are in their 80s. The oldest is 104.
The footage will be kept at the group’s archives at Mosul University, and George Washington University in the US capital, for use by researchers and for future generations.
“We wanted to show the world how the people of Mosul overcame this experience,” said a spokesman for Mosul Eye, Mohannad Ammar.
Another witness is Muslim Hmeid, a 27-year-old law student whose Sunni Arab family endured five months of Daesh rule in Sinjar in 2014 before fleeing.
Seared in his mind especially is the “bloody first week, impossible to erase from memory.”
He relived with pain how Daesh targeted the local Yazidi minority, whose non-Muslim faith the extremists considered heretical.
Hmeid remembered watching helplessly as the jihadists came and loaded Yazidi girls and women into lorries.
“Once I saw two or three trucks full of women,” he said. “And a few men, but mostly young women, aged 17 to 30, maybe.”
Entire Yazidi villages were emptied and many fell victim to crimes since recognized as genocide by the United Nations and courts in several countries.
Women were forced into sexual slavery and the men were killed, while “those who could fled into the mountains,” Hmeid said.
“Witnessing such a catastrophe happen to your neighbors and not being able to help ... We were heartbroken,” said Hmeid. “Psychologically, we were devastated.”
With three of his brothers in the military and on the Daesh kill list, the family fled to Turkiye but later returned to Iraq.
“By talking about these topics, we reopen wounds,” said Hmeid. But, added the father of two, “the next generations must know exactly what happened.”