Trying to survive in the shadow of Islamic State

Civilians pay heavy cost to protect their homes, lands and businesses

Iraqis and Syrians living under Islamic State and other insurgent groups have stayed on to protect their homes, lands and businesses, often at great cost.

Steadfastness has, however, been sapped by ongoing government offensives in Mosul and Aleppo. Some 90,0000 Iraqis have escaped from Mosul where a million are said to reside, and 130,000 of the 250,000 Syrians living in eastern Aleppo have fled.

Many Sunni residents of Mosul initially welcomed Islamic State, also known as Isis, when it took control of the Iraqi city in June, 2014. The Shia fundamentalist-dominated government in Baghdad under former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki had persecuted and repressed Sunnis, who responded with widespread protests after the December 2012 arrest of finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni.

A year earlier Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, another Sunni, had fled to the Kurdish region after he was charged with murder.

In addition, thousands of Sunnis were detained on trumped-up charges or for taking part in demonstrations.

According to Mosul Eye, an underground blog written by Iraqi residents, about half the pre-Islamic State population of two million, had remained in the city until recently. Christians, Kurds , Turkomen and Yazidis had fled early on, leaving Sunnis to face Islamic State rule.

Intrusive and brutal

It grew increasingly intrusive and brutal although the city’s administration functioned: there was trade with


, and food was supplied by farmers and herdsmen in the countryside.

Prosperous residents dared to flout Islamic State’s strict bans on cigarettes and alcohol by smoking and drinking covertly, but they conformed when in public.

After Baghdad launched its campaign to regain the city in October, Mosul Eye reported the city’s Sunni citizens feared being branded as collaborators by their Shia liberators, as much as they abhor Islamic State. Civilians have reason to fear as fleeing men and youths are routinely detained for questioning by troops or Shia militias known for abuse, torture and killing captives.

Unlike Iraqis stranded in Mosul, civilians living in the Islamic State's head- quarters at Raqqa in north central Syria have managed to maintain ties with Damascus by travelling to the capital to obtain official documents and medical care.

Those risking the nine-hour bus journey have left spouses and children behind as hostages for two or three days before returning home. The small hotel I use in the central business district of Damascus has been fully booked by people from Raqqa. In conversation with The Irish Times several farmers said they had stayed in Raqqa to prevent Islamic State from taking over their homes and fields or punishing them for trying to leave. Civilians could flee once Raqqa is besieged by US-backed forces.

Syrian civilians remained in insurgent-held, largely poor districts of eastern Aleppo because it was home, they were with family and friends in familiar surroundings and did not want to be internally displaced or refugees, destitute and dispersed to unknown locations.

Those who had participated in anti-government protests or took up arms feared arrest by the authorities. Men of military age sought to avoid conscription. Nevertheless, the UN estimated in September that half the civilians wanted to leave.

Although Syria's ally, Russia opened several corridors enabling them to depart and the government proclaimed an amnesty for armed men, snipers from hardline factions held hostage both civilians and fighters from small groups, preventing a mass exodus.

However, Syrian army advances into eastern Aleppo over the past three weeks have compelled even al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadi allies, the dominant factions, to call for a ceasefire to permit the entry of food and medical supplies and allow civilians to leave.

Those who depart find refuge in unfinished buildings, schools and temporary shelters in government-held west Aleppo where UN and international agencies provide food and medical care.