'The new human being'

Woman was happily married with 3 kids, but everything changed — including her husband — when ISIS came to town

Zainab Salbi with the third in a series of dispatches from war-torn Mosul, Iraq, on the human toll of the ongoing strife there


The people of Mosul have survived ISIS control of their city in many ways. There are those who stayed at home for months at a time and some for years so as to avoid any encounter with a member of ISIS. There are those who resisted the extremists by sending messages about their whereabouts to Iraqi army members or the media outside of Mosul. There are those who tried to escape. And there are those who endorsed ISIS upon the militants’ entry into Mosul. There are women whose husbands joined ISIS after the terrorists came to town, who encountered and, in many cases, survived torture that is just beginning to reveal itself to the world, and to people in the newly-liberated city. As the people of Mosul learn of each other’s stories of life under ISIS rule, they are advocating for the building of a “new human being.”

It is an expression that most people are using in Mosul these days.

“We are looking at the people of Japan and how they started from zero after Hiroshima,” says Ibrahim, a man who avoided ISIS by holing up inside his home while militants controlled the city. “They started with children by building new values. That’s what we need to do. We need to build new value systems. This hatred and revenge does not work anymore. We need to start a new way of thinking based on forgiveness and compassion,” he continued. Ibrahim just recently summoned the fortitude to venture outside his home. He paid a visit to his neighbor, Zainab, whom he had feared for since she was married to an ISIS fighter.

What he discovered is the story of a victim, not a criminal. “If they ruined Islam’s reputation throughout the world, then they have destroyed it fully amongst Muslims,” Ibrahim tells me as he walks me to Zainab’s home in Mosul. Zainab greets him warmly, as if he was an old friend. He has indeed become a new friend after he understood her story, and has become and advocate for her, providing support as she tries to rebuild her life in whatever way is possible for women like her in Mosul.

Zainab was married to a government worker who was working in the electricity department of Mosul municipality. She has three daughters with her husband, Sabah, and they were doing well in their marriage — until he joined ISIS. Everything about him and the male members of the family changed after that, Zainab explains.

Not only did Sabah start routinely beating her up for anything about her behavior that bothered him, so did his father. Zainab has some Shia’a relatives — something that was a non-issue before the ISIS occupation of Mosul. But with the extremist group considering Shia’a Muslims infidels, her status as a wife decreased even though she is Sunni — though she is no longer viewed as “pure” Sunni. He eventually moved her to live in one of the centers of ISIS with the rest of his family members who joined various ranks within the group’s commands. There, she met her husband’s new 13-year old-wife and Manal, the Yazidi woman captured for his uncle, who had become a commander within the ISIS ranks.

“I was alone there. He took my daughters away and kept them with his mother and cut me off from my family where I could not see them or know anything about them,” Zainab explains. Manal and I had so much in common through she was a concubine and I was a wife, still we were both beaten and we both were cut of from our families.” The two women became close friends and eventually they planned their escape together. But that plan did not go well and they were captured just as they were making their way outside of the center where they were being held.

Zainab Salbi interviewing Zanaib, 25, an Iraqi woman whose husband joined ISIS. Women in the World is not using her last name and is hiding her identity because she fears being sent to a government-run camp for women who were married to ISIS militants.

“Abu Abdullah (Zainab’s husband’s uncle) held both of us from the hair and would knock our head on the floor over and over again. Eventually he pinned our heads on the floor as he was on top of us and with one hand he would shoot bullets on the floor that were barely missing our head.” He then locked the two women in separate rooms where they were imprisoned and not able to talk to anybody for two months. Eventually, Zainab was released but Manal was sold for $900 to another man.

Soon after, her husband was killed in the fighting and she was sent to live with her mother-in-law, where she was united with her daughters. She tried to visit her mother’s family in the hope that her uncle would try to help her escape with her daughters. But, she says, ISIS members stormed her uncle’s house as she was visiting and in a moment of fear he started shouting “please don’t kill us. This is my niece and she is a widow of a Daesh (the Arabic term for ISIS ) fighter.”

This particular group of ISIS militants was led by foreign fighters, according to Zainab. She described the men as an American who spoke fluent standard Arabic, and a Russian who spoke broken Arabic. Both men, she recalled, had blond hair and blue eyes. When pressed about verifying their nationalities, Zainab insisted she is certain that one was American and the other was Russian. Upon learning some details of her plight, the Russian fighter looked at her and said, “OK then, since your husband is dead, you are my wife now.” He knocked out her uncle and cousin with the bottom of his rifle and took Zainab and her three daughters with him at gunpoint.

“They have no honor. They know nothing of morality,” Zainab continues as she narrates her story. She does not know the name of her Russian captor. As they made their way through the streets amidst of fighting, he held her three daughters in front of him. Holding children as human shields in order to walk from one place to another is apparently a common tactic ISIS members used to avoid getting killed. They reached a house and her captor forced Zainab and her girls inside and held them there while he went out and battled. At this point, the fighting was in its last breath. ISIS was losing and starting to either explode themselves when there seemed to be no way out or withdraw from the city.

According to Zainab, there was a helicopter that came near the house she was held in, and a ladder was dropped for the Russian fighter and men screaming at him to come up. He refused and kept on yelling back, “I refuse to withdraw. I will fight until the end.” He came back home, took off Zainab’s headscarf, held her from her neck and started sniffing at her neck as he became aroused. “You bitch, you are waiting for the hashed (a reference to the Shia’a militia) to come and sin with you.” He repeatedly sniffed her as he took breaks from the most intense alley-to-alley fighting in the city.

This lasted for days only before an explosive device was thrown at the home they were being kept in and he was killed at the front door. Zainab seized the moment and escaped with her daughters. They ran through decomposing bodies in the streets — corpses of ISIS members that had been left out with no one willing to bury them. “That’s the least we can do: let their bodies rot in the streets,” Ibrahim explains after I inquired about what was happening to the ISIS bodies. “The people of Mosul refused to bury them. We want nothing to do with them,” he continued.

This is almost unheard of in Islamic tradition as the dead are to be buried immediately. Zainab continues, saying, “Islam is about bringing peace to people’s lives. They brought harm instead. They are not Muslims. They are criminals.” She pauses, looks around at her daughters who are now safe and reunited with her mother, her brother and sisters and says, “If Islam is this oppression, then we would not have become Muslims. But this that they brought is not Islam.”

Ibrahim and Zainab, two new friends trying to rebuild their lives in post-ISIS mosul. (Zainab Salbi)

Zainab is only 25 years old. She is not completely safe, though, as many are ostracizing what is known as the “wives of ISIS” and the government is setting up camps to separate them and their children from the rest of society until officials decide what to do with them. There are many complications involved, from security issues to the legal work related to their cases to social stigma they are facing. But Ibrahim and many other women and men in Mosul are saying this is not the way to go about dealing with these women and children.

“We need to embrace them and their children rather than isolate them and punish them any further. That’s how we start building the new human being,” he continues. Ibrahim looks at her and says, “You are my sister now and I will take care of you.” Together they make a peace sign with their hands.

Zainab needs to work and earn a living since she is a single woman with no relationship to her husband’s family for any monetary support. She has not seen them and does not know their whereabouts since she escaped from her Russian captor and does not care to know what happened to them.

As for Ibrahim, he recognizes how his former fear and prejudice of her and women like her has turned into compassion — one that he is committed to help others see as he does now, and work on building “the new human being” in Mosul.

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 www.zainabsalbi.com.

More from Zainab Salbi

Daring young woman shows how to subvert the extremist rule of ISIS

‘Wife of ISIS’ speaks out about being held captive in basement for 3 months, how she was freed

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