Are all the people who worked for Islamic State evil?

Written By: Daniele Pagani WION
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Jul 28, 2017, 12:02 PM(IST) Updated: Feb 07, 2019, 10:39 PM(IST)

The two doctors and their father died in the fighting for Mosul. In photo: Residents flee the fighting for Mosul. Photograph:( AFP )

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What about two doctors who were forced at gunpoint to work for them? This is their mother's story.

“Sometimes I wake up at night. I don’t know where I am, what I am doing. I go to neighbouring tents and cuddle someone else’s child. People think I am crazy. Often I find myself crying in the middle of the night while I hug a pillow. I am so depressed, I want to die.”

The words, accompanied by tears and palms outstretched to the sky, come from an Iraqi woman living in a temporary refugee camp on the outskirt of Bartella in northern Iraq. 

She does not reveal her identity. So let us call her Fatima.

You may think hers is another story of the pain and sorrow that accompanies conflicts and you would be right. 

But there is one detail that makes Fatima's story different -- she was wife and mother to people who worked for Islamic State. 

All the families in the camp are thought to have had at least one member affiliated with the terrorist organisation. They are brought here for identification and then sent on to a bigger camp in Hammam al-Alil. (If they have relatives on the outside willing to stand guarantee for them, they are allowed to leave.) 

The environment is tense -- guards do not allow anyone to enter and, unlike elsewhere, the small stalls selling food are placed outside of the camp’s fence. 

Rules for media are strict: no pictures, no video, no choosing whom you wish to speak with. 

“Daesh (the name for Islamic State in West Asia) came and told my sons they had to work for them. They were doctors and they accepted, they were too afraid to refuse,” says Fatima. 

Her two sons might have treated IS fighters injured during the battle for Mosul. 

Before you jump to judgement and label her sons enemies of humanity, take a minute. 

Make an effort -- imagine if you were one of those two young men. 

You work in a hospital. One day, armed men who conquered your city and established their rule over it, come and ask you to work for them. 

You know who they are and you know that refusing their demands is not really an option. 

If you say no, they might kill you on the spot or hurt or your family. 

So you accept, mostly out of fear. 

Before we judge them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I have done? Would I have fled? What about members of my family that might choose to stay behind? Would I have refused, knowing that a bullet in my head might have been the consequence of my actions?”

It is always easy to accuse the people who did not rise up against Islamic State of cowardice. But the truth is that there are few ideal heroes. 

Most people just want to live their lives, work, and earn their daily bread. 

It matters little to them who rules their city, especially in cases like Mosul. 

In the beginning Islamic state had presented itself as an element of stability, a group that wanted to get rid of corruption and govern the city under Sharia law. All of which might not have sounded too difficult for Mosul's large Sunni population to bear. 

“In the beginning they (the Islamic State) were good. They were helpful and willing to pay salaries,” says Fatima.

Accepting Islamic State's rule passively, to stay alive, does not necessarily make a person a terrorist. 

Fatima's sons and her husband died under the bombs that rained on western Mosul for months during the liberation of the city.

“It is so painful, I can’t forget them,” she says. 

Captain Ziad, of the Iraqi Federal Police, who is in charge of the camp’s surveillance looks at her, his arms crossed behind his back. 

He's wearing blue camouflage fatigues. 

“It is good," he says. "Now you know the pain that all other Iraqi women suffered because of people like your sons.” 

His words hit Fatima like a knife through the heart. She starts to cry. 

“We will not punish her, in Iraq we follow the rule of law. You do not pay for someone else’s mistakes. Even if it is your son,” Captain Ziad says. 

Not quite true

That's not quite true. 

There are almost daily reports of extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions. After months of bloody and exhausting house-to-house fighting, soldiers are not really keen on taking the time to understand who the people they find in West Mosul are. 

Many of the soldiers have lost colleagues and friends to Islamic State. War is a dirty business and it colours -- if not suspends -- moral values. The unspoken rules of the battlefield differ, by far, from the ones we are used to. 

Fatima is just one of many women experiencing the same problem. 

Yes their close relatives worked for Islamic State, some even fought for them. (Iraq is a country in which women often have little say in men’s choices and it is unlikely that a wife or a mother would have been effective at convincing members of her family to refrain from joining Islamic State.) 

They also enjoyed many benefits during the siege of Mosul, the biggest of which was food. While the rest of the citizenry starved beneath the airstrikes, Fatima's family had food on their table through the war. 

But the question remains. Are they to be considered collaborators or victims of the violence that has washed over this country?  

Many of their former neighbours who lost family members to Islamic State will not welcome their return to the cities and villages they came from. 

This is a major problem the Iraqi government will have to address in one of the most difficult processes of reconciliation ever. 

The scenario is not reassuring. 

On top of the need for revenge felt by people affected by Islamic State, a wave of sectarianism has pervaded Iraq. 

Many Shiite army and militiamen hold all the country’s Sunni muslims responsible for what happened, an idea that will undermine the peace process.  

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