Silenced by IS, displaced Iraqis relish return to phones

January 3, 2017
Displaced Iraqis, who fled fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants, wait to charge their mobile phones and electrical lanterns, the generator owner charging 500 Iraqi dinars (about 45 U.S. cents) to charge each mobile phone, at Sewdinan Camp for the displaced near Khazer, Iraq on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Displaced by the fighting in Mosul, Iraqis who escaped Islamic State rule in the northern Iraqi city are doing something they had not done in more than two years: Speaking publicly on their mobile phones and using social media to communicate with friends, relatives and loved ones (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

SEWDINAN CAMP, Iraq (AP) — 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 mobile phone 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 coordinate 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 500 dinars (about 45 cents). The camp does not provide electricity.

IS 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.

On taking the city, IS 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 mobile phones 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.

Diaa Ahmed, a Mosul native who now lives in the Sewdinan Camp for the displaced near Mosul, ran a business providing internet lines to homes and charging customers to log on in the shop. IS enforcers made him install a security camera at the shop so they could monitor his clients.

“They would come every week and demand to see the video recording and the names of those who came into the shop,” he said.

Ahmed eventually decided it was too much trouble, closed the shop last February and started selling food instead.

“They still taxed me, but there were no questions and no visits,” he said, as he carried two shopping bags filled with tomatoes and onions back to his tent.

Phone cards were available in Mosul for a short period after IS 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.

IS grew increasingly paranoid after the U.S.-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 organize their escape. The military would advise them of the best route out and deploy drones or helicopter gunships to protect them.

Mahdi Saleh, 19, used phone credit sent to him by an uncle in the city of Kirkuk to ensure that he and dozens of families from Mosul’s Somar neighborhood could safely escape. The uncle, after consulting with the military and other residents who had fled, provided directions, and they were safely out a week ago.

In the refugee camp, Saleh is enjoying a freedom he has not had in a long time.

“I can now speak on the phone as often as I want to and in front of everyone,” he said, after chatting with an aunt in Kirkuk. “I can smoke, too.”