Unlike most of the world, the people of Mosul did not hear about the operation against ISIS from the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
“We woke up to the sound of unusual explosions that continued until dawn,” says Um Ahmad, a 52-year-old teacher who lives in the east of the city. “My husband told me these were the first shells of the battle to free the city, and that was later confirmed by news reports.”
Although Um Ahmad’s waited more than two years for this news, it was greeted with a mixture of joy and fear.
They are well aware there are likely to be street battles, and other reports suggest that, far from running from Mosul as some had hoped, members of ISIS will try to defend the city.
Several months ago, Um Ahmad’s son was killed by the extremists on suspicion of being part of the anti-ISIS resistance in Mosul.
A City Quietly Celebrates… and Prepares
“I went and knocked on the doors of my neighbors so I could bring them the good news [about the battle to liberate Mosul],” Um Ahmad said in a phone interview. ‘We congratulated each other and there was happiness, the same way there is when there are feasts and other celebrations.”
What the city’s people know about the fighting so far has been well received. They were pleased to hear the prime minister say that only the Iraqi army and the federal police would be fighting in the city; this relieved some of their worries of what might happen if the Shia militias try to enter the city. In other cities where ISIS was present, the militias carried out revenge attacks.
Locals also report that many families of IS members have moved out of the central city and are now living on the outskirts or in surrounding villages also under ISIS control, for fear of reprisals.
On the first day after fighting began, ISIS ran the city as normal, locals reported. That sense of normalcy still remains—markets are still open and traffic still moves through town.
But it is clear things are different. Many people have rushed to the stores and bought up supplies in anticipation of a siege that might continue for weeks; the city insiders known as the Mosul Eye have reported on Twitter and Facebook that food prices are rising astronomically.
Many locals have been preparing for this fight for some time.
For example, Haj Ibrahim al-Badrani* installed a large tank in his garden, in case there is a shortage of water. He has allocated one of the rooms of his house to be his family’s bomb shelter when fighting starts on the streets. His windows are boarded shut and food supplies are stored in a room nearby.
Although people smugglers have been operating continuously, it has now become extremely difficult to leave the city. Additionally, people have also heard rumors that refugee camps will not accommodate them all.
ISIS Increasingly Worried About an Uprising
The number of ISIS fighters on the streets has increased, and there are heavily armed men on every main road. But ISIS members also know they’re in danger out in the open. Many have started to disguise themselves as ordinary citizens—this is the first time they have done so since they took control of the city in 2014. Other reports suggest the fighters are using bicycles to avoid their vehicles being targeted by airstrikes.
ISIS fighters have another concern too: they are watching the people of Mosul closely for any signs of resistance against them. This is still very limited and has had no real impact yet.
There have been a number of recriminatory killings by ISIS. Three young men were hanged on one of the city’s large bridges. The men were accused of supplying information to the Iraqi security forces. They were left hanging there for three days before their bodies were removed.
But there are many in Mosul who hope that when the Iraqi forces arrive in the city, the locals will rise up against ISIS, as happened a few days ago in al-Houd, a village east of Mosul.
“The people of the village attacked us from behind and forced us to escape, leaving behind a number of dead,” one ISIS fighter reportedly told a relative after he was injured in al-Houd and had to return to Mosul. Word of this got around.
For the people of Mosul, there is no doubt that the ISIS’ presence must end soon. Many say everyone is wondering: Where are the soldiers? When do they arrive?
The voices of the militant preachers are becoming hoarse as they continue to repeat prayers in the mosques, asking God to grant them victory and “defeat the infidels.”
Locals are obliged to say “amen” at the end of these prayers or face punishment. But in typical Iraqi style, some of them have started saying a similar sounding word—thamaneen, or “eighty” in English—instead of “amen” after the prayers. It’s both funny and a deliberate sign of disrespect for the ISIS leaders’ prayer. Most of all, though it is a small and significant gesture of resistance—and possibly even hope.
This article originally appeared on Niqash. Names of individuals still inside Mosul have been changed for security reasons.