Displaced Iraqis relish return to phones after ISIS

2017-01-04 10:36
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Sewdinan camp - Iraqis who escaped Islamic State rule during the battle for Mosul are indulging in a newfound freedom — the right to check their phones.

When the Iraqi offensive to retake the northern city began in mid-October, its Islamic State rulers warned residents that anyone caught with an active cellphone would be killed for spying.

Many destroyed their SIM cards and at least one terrified resident flushed his phone down the toilet. Others hid their devices where the militants were unlikely to look - under women's clothes at the bottom of a wardrobe or in bird coops on the roofs of their homes.

For many, the phones came in handy later, when they were able to phone the military to co-ordinate their escape. After arriving in camps for the displaced, they were able to reach out to loved ones and return to social media after a virtual two-year blackout.

Sahm Yassin, a primary school teacher, was one of those who took the risk and hid his phone. Before he fled Mosul about a week ago, he used it sparingly, walking under cover of darkness to high ground where he could get a signal strong enough to call family in Baghdad.

"We were so isolated from the outside world, but I still needed to let them know that we, especially my elderly mother, are OK," said Yassin. "It's a great feeling...I missed being in touch with everyone," he said after retrieving his phone from one of the camp's "power vendors" - displaced Iraqis with small generators who recharge phones for about 45 cents. The camp does not provide electricity.

ISIS seized Mosul, the country's second largest city, in the summer of 2014, when the extremists swept across western and northern Iraq. Ten weeks into the offensive, the militants still hold most of the city.

Radical interpretation of Islamic teachings

On taking the city, ISIS implemented a radical interpretation of Islamic teachings, including a ban on smoking. Men were required to grow beards and women in public had to cover themselves from head to toe.

The group initially allowed the use of cellphones in Mosul under a set of intrusive restrictions. Militants at checkpoints and on foot patrols routinely checked people's phones, looking for suspicious numbers, music or photos, which were also banned. A few months later, the militants destroyed all the mobile towers, but residents said that on higher ground they could still pick up a weak signal from the nearby Kurdish region.

Phone cards were available in Mosul for a short period after ISIS took the city. Later, users relied on relatives and friends for phone-to-phone credit transfers. One major Iraqi provider built new signal towers south of the city last fall, while another ran TV and radio advertisements showing toll-free numbers residents could call to report emergencies or provide information about the militants.

ISIS grew increasingly paranoid after the US-backed Iraqi offensive to retake the city began in October, residents said. Anyone found with an active phone was presumed to be a spy and shot dead on the spot.

But those who held onto their devices were able to call the military on hotline numbers broadcast by local media in order to organise their escape. The military would advise them of the best route out and deploy drones or helicopter gunships to protect them.


Read more on:    isis  |  iraq  |  syria

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