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Cities under siege

For the Middle East’s urban war zones, caught now for years under bombardments and deprivation, survival amid the ruins often means living in the hell brought by Islamic State


Destroyed buildings in the city of Homs, Syria Yazan Homsy/Reuters/Newscom

Cities under siege
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In 2002 Homs was a city of about 1 million people, Syria’s third largest after Aleppo and Damascus. I visited the city on a sunny spring afternoon in the company of a delegation meeting with Muslim and Christian leaders in the wake of 9/11. The boulevards were tree-lined. Afternoon sun slanted across open cafés, where men sat at tables smoking their hookahs or playing backgammon. Women crossed the street in loose scarves, some wearing pants or jeans, others in knee-length skirts, walking their children home from school.

At St. Mary’s, a Syriac Orthodox church built over an underground church dating back to A.D. 50, the delegation had tea with Christian and Muslim clergy. A British businessman, one of the Christians in the delegation, told movingly of his brother’s death in the twin towers and his desire for an end to terrorist bloodshed and the jihadi ideology driving it. Around the room the clergymen nodded in agreement.

In 2013 one of the pastors from Homs sent me photos of the city’s destroyed churches, and I recognized the room where we had met: Plaster from bombed-out walls covered the velvet couches where we sat, and glass from exploded windows spilled over everything.

By that time the country’s civil war had forced nearly 400,000 Syrian Christians from their homes and destroyed at least 40 churches. Islamic insurgents who joined the fight against President Bashar al-Assad took over the Old City, where St. Mary’s and other churches were located, killing early on more than 200 Christians who lived there. They kidnapped residents, too, demanding ransom. Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian pastor from Homs, warned me that not only the churches, but the nation itself could not survive a continued onslaught.

In 2014, blocked from visiting Homs, I met refugees from the city in neighboring Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. One family arrived on a blustery March day barefoot, wearing pajamas. They had lost everything. Mothers from Homs told me of weeks and weeks trapped inside their apartments, “bombs falling on our heads all night long,” one said, with snipers waiting should they venture outdoors. The families ran out of food, made stews from grass and weeds, and kept cook fires going by burning feathers pulled from pillows and mattresses.

A month later, assassins believed linked to al-Nusra Front killed Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt. The well-known Jesuit, aged 75, had spent 50 years in Syria and refused to leave the besieged Old City, negotiating with government and rebel groups to deliver food to trapped residents.

“I do not accept that we drown in a sea of hunger, letting the waves of death drag us under,” van der Lugt said in a video he made to show how little food he had on hand, just a few weeks before he was shot in the head in his garden. By the time of his death, the 60,000 Christians who once lived in Homs’ Old City had been pruned to 30.

Churches not destroyed in the Old City, once full of ancient landmarks … have been converted to market bazaars, selling war booty plundered from the homes of Christians.

As with other once-populous centers, Homs became a vicious battleground after rebel groups and Islamic insurgents took up posts there. Syrian forces used barrel bombs and airstrikes to combat them, followed by Russian and U.S. coalition bombardments. Today the Syrian army controls some sectors of Homs, but Islamic State rules others throughout the city and surrounding province, ensuring its branded reign of terror: After capturing nearby Qaryatain last August, ISIS militants abducted 230 Christians and bulldozed the 1,500-year-old monastery there.

To describe Homs as a shell of its former self is inaccurate. All that’s left of the once-vast city are its skeletal remains. Block after block, rubble sits piled near broken buildings, rebar protruding like so many stray antennae. Here a robe hangs eerily from a bombed-out doorway, there a heeled shoe sits atop a heap of busted concrete. A kitchen sink, abandoned tires, and an exploded car chassis lie strewn over the same cratered street block.

Residents have tried to return to Homs, including Christians to the Old City. Last summer a couple got married in St. George’s Church, taking their vows in a bombed-out sanctuary with no roof and only blown-out windows. In February newlyweds Nada Merhi and Hassan Youssef took their wedding photos amid the ruins. Their Syrian photographer, Jafar Meray, said they wanted to prove that “life is stronger than death,” but Meray told me he had to have permission from the Syrian Army and navigate checkpoints to reach the demolished area near the Old City. The groom wore army fatigues, suggesting he’d be heading back to war soon after.

Most residents who return to Homs discover they cannot stay. In February a Russian film company captured by drone aerial video footage of Homs, which was broadcast by Russia Today (see below).

Besides panning for several minutes over nonstop devastation, the camera catches the eerie quiet of a city gone dark: Not a car moves over the streets, not a soul is seen, anywhere.

Homs is emblematic of many cities across Syria and Iraq under siege now years into deadly war with Islamic insurgents. The largest—Mosul in Iraq—remains in the grip of Islamic State. All have witnessed human atrocities and devastation that not only reach across city landscapes but extend forward and backward in time—their ancient sites obliterated, their futures a vast unknown. The dystopian future Americans see in movies is one their residents have to live day in and day out.

MOSUL, IRAQIS SAY, HASN’T BEEN THIS CLEAN in 30 years. Since the Islamic State captured the city of 2 million in June 2014, the militant group saw to clearing the streets of trash and cigarette butts. It closed down stalls run by illegal sidewalk vendors and put up new streetlamps. ISIS militants worked around the clock to repair roads, spiff up public spaces, and refurbish hotels.

Beneath the civic refurbishment, Mosul feels like a prison, say residents who’ve managed to communicate with outside relatives. To leave the city requires lengthy paperwork, and residents are required to put up collateral—a home or a car. Those possessions are confiscated if they don’t return. Residents also must have a guarantor, someone inside the city who signs a paper pledging their return.

Traveling into Mosul requires signing an ISIS covenant, risking the unpredictability of ISIS militants once inside the city, and perhaps not being allowed to leave. Few attempt it.

Women cannot leave their homes without a male relative escorting them. At all times outdoors they must wear a niqab, the full-length black veil that leaves only a slit for eyes. Black gloves, too, are mandatory. Shops selling the niqab veils are everywhere, and women complain of exorbitantly priced coverings now that demand for them is so high.

The lightning strike by Islamic State on June 10, 2014, took Baghdad and its supporters in the West by total surprise. But to Mosul residents who had survived years of low-level insurgency, it seemed almost inevitable.

Men living in Mosul under ISIS have had to grow beards. Ever since the 2014 takeover, beauty salons and barbershops have been closed. Churches not destroyed in the Old City, once full of ancient landmarks and a traditional souk or covered marketplace, have been converted to market bazaars, selling war booty plundered from the homes of Christians.

Most schools are closed. Those that are open must teach from an ISIS-approved curriculum. The University of Mosul, one of the largest and most highly regarded in Iraq, has been shuttered now for 21 months—the first time the university has closed since 1957.

Perhaps close to a million people still live in Mosul. The city’s Christians—a population estimated at 30,000 following a decade of U.S.-led war—all have left. Like all the cities overtaken by ISIS, a rich diversity has vanished: Mosul’s Yazidis and Turkmen are all gone, and most Muslim Shiites and Kurds have fled, leaving only Sunni Muslims.

“They destroyed everything,” said Sinan, a 26-year-old Mosul native and Christian who fled with his family overnight in June 2014. Sinan told me he snuck back into Mosul three times, dodging ISIS checkpoints and street sentries each time. He wanted to collect family valuables, his mother’s jewelry, and his father’s documents.

“All our house was destroyed. In the beginning they don’t seem like they will do anything to Christians. They said they came to give us freedom from the government, that sort of thing. I saw them on the street many times when I was there again. You felt even then they would not stay the same.”

Sinan’s family joined thousands of others from Mosul who left with what they could but lost everything they had. ISIS forced them to relinquish deeds to their homes. For many families, those documents represented property maintained since the Ottoman era. Without those, they have little to return to, even if Mosul some day is retaken. Sinan and his family now live in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he works for a local aid group.

For Mosul’s remnant, including many of Sinan’s former classmates at the University of Mosul, everyday life unfolds under strict Sharia law, publicly enforced. Anyone caught stealing has a hand amputated. Anyone caught in adultery is stoned to death or thrown from a building. The BBC spent months collecting cell phone video footage shot secretly inside the city, moving it house to house to smuggle it out, revealing amputations taking place on street corners, stonings in open lots.

Enslavement of non-Muslim women and children is legal in Mosul, as well as taking girls as young as 9 years old in marriage. In fact, the decrees for slavery and sexual exploitation are posted on the walls of mosques throughout the city.

At the time of the ISIS takeover, militants killed or captured thousands of Yazidis and hundreds of Christians. They traffic their victims between Mosul and ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, where they are held in churches turned into prisons, or in actual prisons. When militants in 2014 overran Badush Prison, a large facility about 6 miles north of the city, they emptied it and executed about 600 inmates—mostly Shiites, but also Yazidis and Kurds, with a few Christians among them—dragging them to a nearby ravine and shooting them. (Fifteen men survived and gave accounts to Human Rights Watch.)

Over the coming months the militants moved abducted Yazidis, Christians, and Turkmen in and out of the Badush cells. They systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families. They raped the women and girls, many of them repeatedly, before sending them off to Raqqa or to other “slave markets” under ISIS control.

AMERICAN HOPES FOR MOSUL a decade ago could not have been more different. Mosul seemed to thrive under U.S. control, while places like Anbar province fell to insurgency early on in the Iraq War. David Petraeus, then a major general commanding the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), took charge of Nineveh province in 2003, and the locals soon adopted him as something of a governor.

In 2004 Petraeus and his troops walked the streets of Mosul freely, even at night. And unlike U.S. commanders elsewhere, Petraeus welcomed former Baathists, the Saddam Hussein loyalists stripped of their posts in Baghdad. Once they signed a pledge of good faith, they remained on duty, allowing the Nineveh government, unlike the governments of nearly every other province, to function.

With a trained local cadre, Petraeus stood up an Iraq Civil Defense Corps, the first in the country. It was a homegrown security force of Kurds and Arabs who successfully policed the city alongside the 101st. They patrolled into the rural areas of surrounding Nineveh province, settling tribal feuds and land disputes while doling out money. Using funds confiscated from Saddam’s coffers, Petraeus began numerous reconstruction projects. “Money,” the commander said, “is ammunition.”

Petraeus understood like few the challenges ahead. “We’re in a race with ourselves,” he said at the time. “Now we’re seen as liberators. Eventually we’ll be seen as occupiers.”

Mosul residents long remembered those early days of liberation. “The first year with Petraeus in Mosul was good. All the people see Americans as liberators, not occupiers—visiting houses, waving to children, eating with them in their homes,” Nineveh’s deputy governor, Khasro Goran, told me in 2008.

Mosul in many ways made a military career for Petraeus, who went on to become a four-star general in charge of all forces in Iraq and later Afghanistan (he afterward led the CIA briefly before resigning in 2012 over revelations of an affair involving misuse of classified information ). The city under his command was poised to model what the rest of a new Iraq could look like. The 101st led the way on D-Day, playing a role in decisively turning the tide of World War II, and it looked as if the airborne division might create its own beachhead in Iraq.

But the gains unraveled. Civilian authorities in Baghdad, starting with Ambassador Paul Bremer, overruled Petraeus’ efforts at a civilian-military partnership. They wanted all government activities and funding run out of Baghdad. That meant overruling a federalist approach, one that appeared better suited to Iraq, for a highly centralized one. Next, the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad installed a mostly Shiite police and army presence in mostly Sunni Mosul, just as U.S. troops began pulling back from the city proper.

The new Iraqi army sidelined the local forces trained under Petraeus, stirring resentment. Suddenly the Sunni Arab soldiers and former Baathists reinstated under Petraeus had nothing to do. The Petraeus-led surge that worked so well in Baghdad and Anbar province chased many al-Qaeda in Iraq militants into Mosul, where they joined forces with some now-powerless Sunni enlistees. From 2008 onward, Mosul became a seedbed for terrorist activity, while the U.S. coalition paid it less and less attention. The lightning strike by Islamic State on June 10, 2014, took Baghdad and its supporters in the West by total surprise. But to Mosul residents who had survived years of low-level insurgency, it seemed almost inevitable.

NOW MORE THAN 18 MONTHS under ISIS rule, Mosul—once full of commerce, history, ethnic and religious diversity—is on its way to ruin similar to Homs and other cities. The once-looming tomb of Jonah the minor prophet has been leveled, and the ancient ruins of Nimrud that dominated the city’s eastern bank of the Tigris are gone, all destroyed by ISIS.

The city’s 45 churches also have been demolished or converted to ISIS use. The 19th-century Latin Church, also known as the Dominican Clock Church, was one of the last to go. ISIS leveled the structure a year ago. Its landmark tower, with a four-sided clock that until the 1980s was wound by hand, its ticking heard across the neighborhood, now sits with other rubble piled in the street. A Christian population of about 30,000 in 2014 has been whittled to 68 believers too elderly to leave.

Iraqis who long for the liberation of Mosul also fear what it might look like. An intense air war likely would precede a ground offensive, destroying remaining landmarks and pushing Mosul’s revival decades into the future. Retaking from ISIS the city of Kobani in Syria last year took three months—with intense fighting plus U.S. airstrikes extending over seven months. The offensive left nearly half a million residents homeless.

Iraqi forces persistently hint a Mosul offensive will happen this year. They’ve even dropped leaflets on the city from time to time to alert residents on what to do once it begins. But in recent weeks Pentagon officials began tamping down expectations.

“Mosul will be a complex operation, and so I’m not as optimistic,” Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 9. “It’s a large city. I’m not as optimistic that we’ll be able to turn that in the near term. In my view, certainly not this year.”

Time, for now, appears on Islamic State’s side while timetables are in the hands of outsiders, leaving under siege ISIS-held cities, and the survivors living day-to-day hells within them.

—Mindy Belz is the author of They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East (Tyndale, 2016), due out next month. Some of the material in this article will appear in the book.

Listen to Mindy Belz discuss “Cities under siege” on The World and Everything in It.


Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.

@MindyBelz

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