Abu Ahmad and his family lived in Mosul for their whole lives, remaining through the 2003 US invasion and the 2014 ISIL takeover.
The family faced innumerable challenges amid the war and while living under the oppressive rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS). They could not actively resist for fear of punishment or death, and instead tried to continue living their lives as quietly and normally as possible.
But as the war to retake Mosul broke out late last year and life became increasingly dangerous, the family decided to flee, travelling first to live with relatives in ISIL’s self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa, and then on towards Turkey.
Abu Ahmad tells Al Jazeera the story of his harrowing journey.
I worked and owned a clothing store in Mosul, and ISIL’s invasion had a huge impact on my work. I was unable to sell any of the up-to-date clothing or jeans, because ISIL would not allow their sale.
One day, ISIL fighters entered my store and shouted: “Show us what you are selling!” They entered the store and threw clothes around. Afterwards, they took some items without paying, and then they left. I did not utter a word. I just wanted them to leave, so I wouldn’t end up in jail.
I lived in Mosul with my wife and three sons, aged 12, 15 and 16. When Iraqi army and coalition forces last year began battling to reclaim the city from ISIL, the situation became terribly intense, with dozens of random air strikes and a constant bombardment by coalition warplanes.
Dozens of people were killed or left trapped under the rubble, as there was not enough equipment to help them. At the same time, ISIL refused to let civilians leave, shutting down all exit points from the city.
During the first weeks of these battles, we tried to remain calm, hoping for a quick liberation of the city – but as the weeks wore on, we realised it would not be so easy.
I began to plan a way to leave the city, contacting people who had helped others to leave. I learned that these people were connected with a group of ISIL fighters who would help people leave the city in return for cash. I had no choice but to take the risk. It was better than just sitting and waiting for death to come to our home.
For a payment of around $700, I left with the smugglers in a civilian car, crossing through ISIL checkpoints. The roads were mostly empty, except for a few military cars and ISIL fighters. We travelled at night for several hours until we reached Tal Afar, and then another area called Baag, near the Iraq-Syria border.
We stayed there in a camp for several days, but it was not safe; ISIL fighters controlled the surrounding area, and the air strikes were getting closer.
Eventually we were able to cross the border into Syria. Even though ISIL, from whom we were fleeing in Iraq, also controlled the city, we had family members in Raqqa and we decided to live with them, as we had nowhere else to go at the time.
We paid another $700 to smugglers to get there, and spent days travelling through the Syrian desert before we arrived in the city. We ended up staying in Raqqa for a couple of months. The behaviour among ISIL fighters there was even worse and more extreme.
They arrested me many times. They did not care about my age or the many health issues I was suffering from. They are brutal with civilians, and especially since we had come from Iraq, there was extra scrutiny on us.
We walked through mountains, between trees and through patches of mud. Mothers tried in vain to quiet their babies when they cried.
In prison, I met many others who had been jailed for failing to grow out their beard, or smoking, or having a long moustache. After two months in Raqqa, and amid intermittent attacks, I began planning a way to flee to Turkey.
The journey would be long and expensive, but I had no other options.
We arranged for a smuggler to take us through an area controlled by the Free Syrian Army, part of Operation Euphrates Shield, and we left around 8pm. After two hours in the car, we arrived near the front lines of clashes between ISIL and the FSA, and we sat for about an hour without moving.
Around 11pm, the smuggler told us: “Run and don’t look behind, or you will be killed. Don’t let ISIS see you.” We were shaking in terror but we did as he said, lowering our heads and running fast, carrying our clothes and bags.
Within hours, we had arrived in a Turkish-controlled area, and we were brought to a house to get some rest. From there, we began travelling towards Turkey. At the Syria-Turkey border, we stayed in a room full of families who were also planning to cross with us.
In the middle of the night, we moved – dozens of people walking at the same time, saying nothing and moving slowly to avoid getting shot by Turkish police. We walked through mountains, between trees and through patches of mud. Mothers tried in vain to quieten their babies when they cried.
As we neared a tunnel, the smuggler told us we were almost at the end of our journey. But all of sudden, Turkish soldiers began screaming and shooting their machineguns. We scattered into the forest; I fell while running, and was shot in my waist. My son was shot in his leg.
Within minutes, everyone had gone. I stayed with my son and three other injured people laying on the ground. We didn’t scream or yell, to avoid attracting the attention of police. Eventually, the smuggler came back and helped us to escape the border area; we travelled to a hospital in Harem, Syria, and then moved in with another family in the area.
Our family is still suffering. We don’t know where we will end up next. We are running from everything and everyone, just seeking safety and a normal life. Sometimes this seems impossible to reach. We just need our home back.