Iraqi historian documents ‘IS’ atrocities in Mosul

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Omar Mohammed, a young historian from the Iraqi city of Mosul, has founded a platform to document the crimes committed by “Islamic State.” Has Mosul Eye made a difference?
Logo Mosul Eye (Omar Mohammed)

“Mosul Eye was for Mosul, but it was also addressed to the rest of the world,” Mohammed recently told DW, discussing the more than 300,000 online followers his platform has amassed. “‘Islamic State’ wanted to isolate the city so that there were no witnesses, so globalizing Mosul became an act of protection,” he added.

And as a witness he took it upon himself to relate the horrors committed by IS in Mosul that countered the group’s narrative in real time. “It was a way to protect the future of my city so that coming generations would know what happened here,” the 32-year-old scholar said. Mohammed began writing under the pseudonym Mosul Eye, along with other names that disguised his identity, shortly after IS issued its so-called Constitution of the City in June 2014 — 16 articles by which it ruled Mosul in accordance with a strict form of Sharia law, described by Mohammed as “the rules of death.”

The list of atrocities he witnessed and documented included the mass displacement of Christians and the enslavement of Yazidis, execution by stoning of accused adulterers and throwing people believed to be homosexuals from high buildings.

On a secret mission through Mosul

Moving through the IS-occupied city covertly, chronicling how the group destroyed its civil system, was a far cry from studying archival material, however, and Mohammed had to come to terms with his possible death. “If I were to be killed it had to be for something, so I devised a way to keep my journals safe and also shared them with a trusted colleague outside Iraq,” he said.

Fearing for his and his family’s safety if he were discovered as the man behind Mosul Eye, Mohammed fled the IS-controlled city in late 2015 finally reaching Europe where he was granted asylum. He could have settled into the academic life he loved after receiving a place to research his PhD, but felt compelled to continue Mosul Eye, following events up to the minute.

Omar Mohammed, founder of Mosul Eye, giving a keynote address (DW/S. Binelli) Omar Mohammed (left) is continuing to raise awareness around the world of Mosul’s plight

His posts were read around the world as people tried to understand what was happening in the city off-limits for so long to international media, as well as by humanitarian organizations, among them the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Hakim Khaldi, adviser to MSF’s Operations Department, first contacted Mohammed back in December 2016 as the organization mulled its Mosul response. “It was very difficult to get information from people inside IS-held territory to know their living conditions and which areas were most in need of medical assistance,” Khaldi told DW.

Mohammed also advised MSF as to which medical facilities in the city weren’t damaged and could still be used to set up relief projects like a trauma hospital or maternity center. “We worked in close cooperation and Omar [Mohammed] was very involved as we planned our Mosul operations,” Khaldi said.

Mosul Eye: A reliable source of information

Mohammed assisted more than just humanitarian organizations. During the fiercest fightingin West Mosul in 2017, residents caught between IS fighters and coalition bombardment made dramatic appeals online, unable to escape. Desperate families around the world with relatives trapped in the collapsing city sent him messages. “Mosul Eye became a trusted source of information in its three years and so people reached out to me as a last resort even though I was anonymous,” Mohammed explained.

Using open source information and his precise knowledge of the city, the Mosul historian geo-tagged trapped families, and with the help of a journalist covering the battle, informed coalition and Iraqi forces of their coordinates. In this period, Mosul Eye became a kind of crisis management tool organizing rescue missions via social media in real time. More than 90 families were brought to safety, including Mohammed’s own.

As Mosul Eye evolved into an interactive platform connecting people, places and networks and as the defeat of IS loomed in mid-2017, Mohammed believed it was time to act for the future. “Despite the trauma and unimaginable destruction, a local youth movement emerged and I wanted to support that,” he said.

Read moreMosul: The battle for Iraq’s future

Rebuilding Mosul’s civil society

From April to June 2017, Mohammed organized a team of young volunteers to collect what was left of the destroyed university library’s collection that once housed more than 1 million books. They recovered some 30,000 volumes. He also coordinated book donations from around the world and in April 2017, while the fighting was still ongoing in West Mosul, a violin concert at the Prophet Jonah Shrine destroyed by IS back in 2014. And this July, the scholar with a passion for classical music is organizing another concert to be held  in Vienna, where an orchestra performance will be livestreamed to the city of Mosul.

Intent on building networks to support the city’s revival, particularly in the fields of culture and education, Mohammed now devotes much of his time to speaking at international events and conferences and is attending this year’s Global Media Forum, hosted by DW in Bonn. Mohammed has also sent out an open invitation via Mosul Eye for Western experts on the Middle East to visit the city and begin new exchanges, and they’ve responded positively.

“So much of my city has been destroyed and the society must now be rebuilt for which new, creative ideas are needed. Nothing can go back to what it was before,” Mohammed said.

Watch video 03:11

Mosul: aid workers remove bodies in Mosul

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