What lies behind Mosul Eye
"What happened after 2014 is another chapter of what happened to this city" say Omar Mohammed, when speaking about his home city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.
Mohammed was born in Mosul during some of the worst moments of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
“I was born on 8 April, the Baath party was born on 7 April, and the fall of the regime was on 9 April. I turned 17 when I saw the [US] invasion ... 2014 changed everything in my country," he explains.
Mohammed was in Mosul under the corrupt Iraqi army, after the US invasion and while the Islamic State (referred to as ISIS: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, pre-2014) was beginning to strengthen and grow.
At the time they already had a foothold in Mosul: “We were used to seeing [car] bombs, weekly there were dead bodies in the street, people gett[ing] kidnapped, people paying taxes to the jihadists. The corruption among the security forces [was] something that was being normalised in the city for about 10 years. The city was terrorised I would say,” explains Mohammed.
Even then, heading out to work was not an easy situation. “When I wake up and go out, the first thing I think about: am I going to die?”
One story in particular - which is well known among Mosul residents - is about a businessman who refused to pay IS before they seized control of the city in 2014. So to send the man a message "they put a bomb in the car of his son on his wedding day", some time in 2011 or 2012. "After that they told him that if he was not going to pay he should prepare another grave for his other son."
Although the Iraqi security forces were in Mosul until 2014, Mohammed points out that such threats were common. “If I get threatened by ISIS, I can’t go to the Iraqi security forces or to the police because they are corrupted and my name will go directly to ISIS and they will come to kill me. So we were blocked in the middle of this corruption and ISIS.”
IS enters Mosul
Although news of the newly-formed Islamic State armed group in nearby cities was known across Mosul, many chose to stay. In fact, when they arrived, even the Turkish consulate stayed while the former governor appeared in public telling people not to worry and that everything was ok, explains Mohammed.
He adds that as the diplomatic staff didn’t leave, most people didn’t see the need to run away.
Even after IS arrived in June of 2014, it didn't show its true colours. "At the very beginning, ISIS (Islamic State of Syria post-2014) wanted to give the people [the impression] that they were there to protect the city, to take the city from the control of the corrupted government. It was very misleading.The people didn’t understand,” adds Mohammed.
But then in three weeks things had changed. “It’s like they pressed [a] button. Everything changed in two days."
Mohammed remembers receiving a list of what was permitted and the consequences if people refused to obey.
Public executions started, beheadings in the streets, arrests, lashes for not attending mosque, throwing LGBT people off buildings and stoning women on allegations of adultery - actions which took Mosul back to the Middle Ages, he says.
Everyone was expected to attend public executions if they were being filmed. A crew of camera men would often repeat the scenes, explaining that a given camera angle or position was not good enough to take a decent shot.
Mosul Eye launched
The day IS arrived to take over the city, Mohammed says he was using his personal account to post everything. The attack came at 3:00 am on 6 June, an account of which he posted on his personal account as Omar. However, a friend who saw his post told him to be careful. Mohammed erased his personal profile and created an anonymous one called Mosul Eye.
“It wasn’t just to share info with others, it was more telling the truth about what’s happening in the city” he explains, adding that the people of Mosul were in a black box.
"They couldn’t get out and people couldn’t get in. If no one knew the truth about what was really happening to them, then how would future generations know" he asks.
“If there wasn’t another narrative, people would only suspect what happened, they would start investigating and they would find only the narrative of ISIS. So we [would have] lost the truth.”
As a trained historian, Mohammed risked his life and that of his family’s to chronicle the day-to-day life in the city. Every day, he would post on his blog stories about how the people lived, the crimes of IS, what IS have done to the people, along with the names of the victims, the impact of the airstrikes. He also listed the names of IS fighters who were killed - in fact, everything that happened.
At times he would push his own security boundaries of risk to take photos or videos. But all of this was done to ensure the history of the city was accurately being recorded.
Writing about Mosul
No one knew of his blog. Not even his family. While Mosul Eye was intended for English-speakers, he had other blogs under various names to target Iraqis. He wanted to clarify a misunderstanding amongst Iraqis outside Mosul that the people of Mosul supported IS, something which was clearly not true.
So his blogs became a trusted platform, especially his Mosul Eye among the international community. Even those in his own city were reading his blog through the help of family and friends who could access them outside of the city and report the news.
But shouldering the responsibility of such a chronicle became a burden and one that he couldn’t share.
“I was so tired, that I couldn’t express my feelings to my mother, to my brother, to my sister. It was heavy on my shoulders, so I thought the only option is to die” he explains.
"So I went to the Tigris River, drinking tea, wearing red, smoking publicly,” says Mohammed. He waited for IS to kill him. But to his surprise, no one noticed him. A few months later he decided it was time for him to leave.
He had been receiving numerous threats on his blog from IS, and they were getting more active within the neighbourhoods, by searching houses.
There was an IS leader living in the house next to his. His neighbourhood in particular had become surrounded by IS.
“If they find me, I’m ready to die, but this is my family. I’ve been protecting them for more than a year, so why should I give them up?" he asked himself. The result is that he made arrangements to be smuggled out of the city.
Mohammed explains that he left with his notebook and his hard drive that contained every observation about his Mosul under IS.
While the car waited for him at six in the morning to sneak him out of the city, he quickly woke his mother up to say a quick good bye without offering any details so as ensure her safety.
Even in the safety of Turkey and elsewhere, Mohammed continued to update Mosul Eye until the city was liberated. In November of 2017, he finally decided to reveal his identity and in doing so relieve himself of the burden he had been carrying for nearly two years.
He explains that while he had initially vowed to never reveal himself, the liberation of Mosul meant there was no longer a threat to his family. He also wanted the people of his city to learn to trust again.
How could they could learn to do so if he didn’t make that first step to reveal his identity, he asks. On top of all those reasons is the most basic one: “I was also tired of hiding.”
Since he revealed his identity, Mohammed has been telling his story to different media outlets and working on his doctoral thesis. He also writes in an effort to move on and find security amongst people.
“I’m writing now, writing from the beginning of my life and will continue until the end," he explains. "Writing is helping me to get all of these ideas and images out of my mind."
He’s also trying to be as involved as possible from a distance with the cultural revival in his city; a city he hopes to go back to very soon.