Mosul: Haytham Salem has not spoken to his sister in years, but this is no ordinary family feud. When Islamic State jihadists overran Iraq’s Mosul, he fled but his nephew joined them.
Nearly two years since the group was ousted from the northern Iraqi city, seeds of distrust, betrayal and resentment planted during jihadist rule have begun bearing fruit in Mosul.
Some families whose members supported IS have become pariahs, shunned by their onetime neighbours and friends.
Others are split by guilt, with relatives who stayed in Mosul after IS’s 2014 takeover blaming those who fled for abandoning them to the jihadists.
Salem, 34, and his sister are among those still estranged.
When IS burst into their hometown, he escaped to safety in the nearby Kurdish region, while his sister and her children remained in Mosul.
“She still reproaches me for not having asked about her. But the jihadists banned cell phones and I had no idea where she was,” he says.
IS quickly turned Mosul into the Iraqi capital of its so-called ‘caliphate’, enlisting both locals and foreigners to impose its ultra-conservative version of Islamic law.
Salem’s nephew joined the group, but his whereabouts are now unknown — and his mother, spurned because of her son’s actions, has not been allowed to move back into her neighbourhood.
“The truth is we still don’t know what happened to her son, and security forces won’t even let her go home,” says Salem.
During IS’s three-year reign over Mosul, it restricted communication and travel out of the city and encouraged residents to report on relatives or neighbours who did not abide by Islamic law.
That distrust has lingered, says 30-year-old Raghid Ali, whose family is still suffering the aftershocks of his cousin’s enlistment in IS.
“After the liberation, I showed security forces where he used to hide. My relationship with my uncle really deteriorated after that,” says Ali, who is unemployed.
Mosul was wrested back from IS neighbourhood by neighbourhood in a blistering, months-long offensive by US-backed Iraqi forces that ended in 2017.
While the city has seen some reconstruction, entire neighbourhoods are still mounds of rubble, littered with corpses and unexploded ordnance.
The social fabric isn’t faring much better, says Umm Ali.
For years, the 42-year-old housewife was stuck in one IS-held district while her sister was trapped in another.
When Umm Ali’s nephew was executed by jihadists, she was unable to reach her sister’s home to comfort her.
As soon as their neighbourhoods were freed, she rushed over to be reunited with her sister and mourn together.
But, says Umm Ali, it was too late.
“She stubbornly refused to understand that our neighbourhood was besieged by the jihadists. She kicked me out of her house,” says the mother of three, dressed in a black robe and matching scarf.
“I don’t know why there’s so much hate between Mosul’s people today. We should be more compassionate towards one another after everything we lived through,” he added.
Consecutive decades of conflict have torn at Iraq’s diverse social fabric, with rifts not only between the country’s diverse sectarian communities but within them.
After IS, hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced across Iraq — including many with perceived jihadist ties.
To be allowed home, they need to be cleared by security forces and approved by their local authorities. But until then, they remain stuck in camps, where rights groups say they could be re-radicalised.
Mohsen Saber, a shopkeeper in Mosul’s historical centre, says the onus was on the Iraqi government ‘to take some real measures’ to resolve these outstanding challenges.
“You need to address the issue of the jihadists’ families: judge those involved in crimes and reintegrate the rest in society,” says the 26-year-old Iraqi.
“Some really had nothing to do with IS and even opposed their relatives who became jihadists,” he adds.
Sheikh Ali al-Tamimi, a tribal dignitary, said Iraq’s entrenched clan networks could also play a mediating role.
Some tribes in the country’s Sunni-majority west have already begun facilitating family returns.
“A mother, a father, a wife or a child of a jihadist who didn’t support the group is not to be blamed,” says Tamimi.
“Nor can a bearer of burdens bear another’s burdens,” he added, evoking a Koranic verse.
And Amal Mohammed, a human rights activist in Mosul, says civil society must be integrated — lest the demons of a not-so-distant past make a comeback.
“Mosul needs civic education programmes in schools and universities to erase these radical ideas,” she says. “Otherwise, with the unemployment and government corruption, terrorists will begin recruiting again.”