ISIS militants, under fire from Iraqi-led forces, are taking human shields as protection
Asa'ad and his family were forced out of their homes and made to walk towards Mosul
They managed to escape and returned to their village, which is now eerily empty
“They told us, ‘You are going to have to walk to Hammam al Alil,’” says Asa’ad. “We knew that it would be long and we took blankets and bread.”
This was the moment, late one afternoon last week, that ISIS militants came to Asa’ad’s village, rounding up families and forcing them onto the road north towards Mosul. Some of the ISIS fighters were foreigners, some Iraqi. The man who came to their door, he says, was Syrian.
It has become an all-too-familiar story: As ISIS retreats from the villages it has occupied for the last two years, it forces civilians – including toddlers and the elderly – to leave their homes. They become human shields, frog-marched toward Mosul and used by the militants as cover from air strikes.
Asa’ad is thin and prematurely grey; his rheumy eyes tell of a life of hard graft. He and his wife Sardiye and their three young daughters live in Tulul al Nasir, a modest farming community on the left bank of the Tigris River, 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Mosul.
Some 600 families in Tulul al Nasir were marched out of the village, he says. Some were put in trucks and cars; many were on foot. ISIS fighters snapped at their heels, driving them onwards.
’Gift from God’
Asa’ad climbs into our car – his youngest daughter Rahma on his lap – to retrace their horrific journey.
He points to an area at the side of the road, where the ISIS fighters suddenly opened fire.
“They killed three brothers and they took the fourth,” he says. “When we saw them being killed, we stopped and then they shot around us.”
As’aad didn’t know why the brothers had been shot; it may have been simply to terrorize the others. At other times, he says, the militants fired over the villagers’ heads.
Later that night, Asa’ad and Sadiye decided to take an enormous risk: Out of sight of the ISIS fighters they slipped away from the road, taking cover in a broad ditch nearby.
A few other families followed them. ISIS fighters came back on motorbikes to search for the missing group – firing into the air the whole time.
Asa’ad says they were saved by the oil fires and another huge blaze from a nearby sulphur factory. The intense smoke obscured the moon and made for a pitch-black night.
“It was a gift from God,” he says.
Children in hiding
For two nights they slept in the ditch, terrified that ISIS would come back to find them and surviving on bread. They had no idea how close Iraqi forces might be.
Then the family took another risk – coming home.
They sneaked into the village, locked all the doors in their house, and kept the children hidden under the staircase. They dared not venture out or make a noise in case ISIS had left fighters behind.
Iraqi troops arrived in Tulul al Nasir early one morning, but the family wasn’t even aware that they had, at last, been liberated from their torturers until that evening. They had not dared move.
“The neighbors came and said, ‘The army is in the streets.’ We went out to celebrate, we couldn’t believe it, we still can’t believe it. At night we are still scared they might come back.”
Listening to her parents, eight-year old Mariam says she was frightened and began to cry when the shooting started. Now she has recovered her playful ways. Her eyes shine again and she tells her foreign visitors she wants to become a doctor.
Her mother smiles and says, “She’s a dreamer.”
The family have few neighbors now – more than three quarters of the villagers are still missing. Many may have already arrived in the town of Hammam al Alil, the last ISIS stronghold south of Mosul.
The UN’s Human Rights Commissioner estimates that ISIS has taken “tens of thousands of men, women and children” from outlying villages and forcing them toward Mosul “as human shields.”
Asa’ad and Sadiye’s eldest daughter and her 4-month old baby may be among them; the family lost contact with her as the villagers were dragooned onto the road north. Sadiye doesn’t know what happened to her brothers either.
The family has been freed from the nightmare of the last two years, but is left feeling alone in the eerily deserted village.
Asa’ad sighs and says the only thing he cares about right now is for the rest of his family and the other villagers to return safely to Tulul al Nasir.