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Iraqi women queue for food in Debaga refugee camp where people displaced by fighting in and around Mosul have sought shelter, on October 22, 2016. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Liberation of Mosul

The legacy of trauma in Iraq: ‘ISIS wanted to buy me for seven palm dates as my dowry’

By Zainab Salbi on October 25, 2016

The liberation of Mosul is being politicized and debated in the United States and abroad — from the Trump camp’s accusation that the operation was timed to support Hillary Clinton’s electoral bid, to Turkey’s insistence that it be part of the operation, despite the Iraqi government’s rejection of that idea.

It seems everyone is looking at this effort as a power play.  What the world may want to pay attention to, instead, is the plan for the aftermath of Mosul’s liberation. There will be not only political ramifications, but also a profound humanitarian and societal impact that no one is discussing.

I recently had the chance to visit the front lines of the fight against ISIS and what I encountered was merely the beginning of a new wave of consequences to be unleashed in Iraq. The road from Baghdad to Sharqat is about three hours’ drive.  Every single town, village, and small city is utterly destroyed — miles and miles of devastated landscape from Saddam’s former palaces to liberated towns and villages still covered with landmines. The scenes are horrifying.

Iraqi families who fled the town of Hawija take refuge in the nearby town of Sharqat, around 50 miles south of the city of Mosul, on September 23, 2016. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi families who fled the town of Hawija take refuge in the nearby town of Sharqat, around 50 miles south of the city of Mosul, on September 23, 2016. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The stories shared by civilians in newly liberated areas are slowly starting to emerge, including whispers of women interrogated by the Iraqi government for being the wives of ISIS. The women, who are mostly pregnant or accompanied by children fathered by ISIS members, are cooperating with the Iraqi government and reporting that they were forced into marriages. Their cases are leaving the government in a quandary: Should some of these women be treated as potential enemies who know ISIS members’ whereabouts, or as enslaved victims? Complicating matters, no one knows what to do with their children. Their births are not legally registered and their fathers are terrorists. Thus far, the Iraqi government is keeping the issue quiet, but many suspect it is only a matter of time before the volume of the post-ISIS crisis becomes undeniable.

There are also stories of captured ISIS fighters’ children. Government members who were part of the investigation but asked not to be identified talked about the kids’ descriptions of the killing they had done, how ISIS gave them leadership positions and authorized them to use guns to kill those who disobeyed the law, including their own relatives.  Some children as young as 11 years old described these actions without remorse. Teenage children who committed such acts have reportedly displayed more awareness of right and wrong in their interrogations.

As I arrived in Sharqat, white flags flew from the tops of houses. The town had been liberated from ISIS control two days earlier, but that did not mean that it was entirely cleared of ISIS members. Militia and army members that were part of the liberation suspect that some of the extremists have simply shaved their beards and are now pretending that they never supported ISIS.  The militias escorted me into town where small gatherings of men and boys in front of their homes had been permitted. I saw a group of teenage boys and asked them how life was for them under ISIS control. They quickly told me how they were flogged for their hairstyles. I passed by a group of men sitting in a circle on the ground and asked them the same question. One man answered: “They flogged us for everything.  If our wives were not dressed properly, it was the husbands who got flogged.  If we didn’t implement their rules to the word, we got flogged for everything.” Mostly, though, they complained of the lack of food, jobs, and unpaid salaries.

TOPSHOT - A woman look at Iraqi forces in the village of al-Khuwayn, south of Mosul, after recapturing it from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists on October 23, 2016, in part of an ongoing operation to tighten the noose around Mosul and reclaim the last major Iraqi city under IS control. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman observes Iraqi forces in the village of al-Khuwayn, south of Mosul, after it was recaptured from Islamic State jihadists on October 23, 2016. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

A pickup truck full of women slowly made its way out of town to the neighboring city Tikrit. As the truck slowed down, I asked the women, whose faces were covered except for their eyes, what they had witnessed. One spoke up: “I am a Shia and a widow with a twin girls. They think of women like me as theirs easily. I lived in horror for two years. They wanted to buy me for seven palm dates as my dowry.” She was referring to the market system that ISIS has used to trade women for cigarettes or food.

I asked if they raped the women. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she replied, and turned her face way from me. Another older woman, sitting in the front of the truck, was crying that she has not seen her family in two years. She described utter poverty and fear in between her tears, then screamed: “I want my family. I want to see my family. Help me please help me.”

Though Shia and Sunni militias are collaborating in the liberation along with the Iraqi army, the Shia militias in their various forms are by far the strongest military component of the operation. They are known among Iraqis for their military discipline and strategy, and are the reason for a lot of the headway made in the liberation.  And though many in the country appreciate the Shia militia’s critical role in the liberation from ISIS, some Iraqi Shia and Sunnis alike worry about the aftermath of the war and what will happen to the militias, whose loyalty is not to the Iraqi government but to religious leaders in Iran and Iraq.

TOPSHOT - An Iraqi refugee woman who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, due the Iraqi government forces offensive to retake the city, walks with her child as they wait to enter Syria in the desert area of Rajam al-Saliba on the Iraq-Syria border south of al-Hol in Syria's Hassakeh province on October 22, 2016. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi refugee woman who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State group, waits to enter Syria on October 22, 2016. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Discussion about the militias is frank on the road to Sharqat, where the forces are the only form of security providing escorts to the front lines. “This is a 10 years’ journey as we see it.  The dust will settle then,” said Ali, a well dressed spokesperson for one of the militias taking a role in the fight. “That’s time we are giving ourselves to resolve all that is happening in Iraq.”

I was born and raised in Iraq and left it at the age of 20.  To witness the utter destruction of a country is nothing less than a heartbreaking experience.  Many Iraqis still believe America will come as their savior not only from ISIS, but in terms rebuilding economically and politically.  When I tell them that there is no such plan, the response is always disbelief.  Regardless of America’s intentions in Iraq, the whole world — from the international agencies to governments who are playing a role in the liberation of the country — must have a plan for the aftermath of liberation. The past has already proven that what happens in this region impacts the whole world.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit