Every time Haidar* sees a black car bumping through the camp for displaced Iraqis, the 20-year-old is afraid that it is someone looking to kidnap him. Five months earlier, Haidar was snatched off the streets of his hometown of Mosul by extremists and dragged before a court. “My eyes were blindfolded and a judge accused me of posting inflammatory poems on the internet,” he recalls.
“I denied the charges and knew they had only taken me because my father worked for the Iraqi forces. I didn’t realize they had also taken my sister, Zaineb, until I heard her in another room begging them to release us.” More than 100,000 residents of Mosul and its surrounding have fled since government forces launched an offensive on October 17 to retake Iraq’s second city.
Some, like Haidar and Zaineb, who are now safe in the care of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, recount the harrowing ordeals that they suffered under extremist rule. Taken from the court in Mosul to a prison by their captors, Haidar becomes agitated as he relates how the siblings were separated. Then the torture began.
“Over a period of 18 days, they put electrical wires on my tongue and shocked me, saying it was because I spoke out against them. They would hang me upside down and hit me on the face, back and legs with hoses. It was so painful I asked them to kill me with a bullet. They told me they would not give me this gift, but said that one day I would be executed.”
In another part of the prison, Zaineb, who was accused of being a witch, was forced to watch fellow female inmates being executed. The dark-haired 23-year old speaks softly and sadly. “They beheaded two women in front of me. One of them [was] a female police officer.” “As for me, I was shocked with electrical wires on my head, nose and on my legs, many times. The pain was unbearable. At night I would go to sleep and I knew I would wake up the next day and be tortured again,” says Zaineb.
“Every day, I was sure I would die.” While they were detained, their 50-year old mother, Rima, spent every day at the extremist-run courthouse, pleading for her children’s freedom. On their 20th day of captivity, Haidar and Zianeb were finally released, without explanation. Rima had to pay US$1,000 for their release. The siblings are now with 16 other family members at a camp run by UNHCR.
But they continue to struggle with the memories of torture and the violence that they witnessed. “I feel like this is not the end, and they will come back for me again,” Zaineb says. “And I need a doctor. I have pain in different parts of my body because of the electric shocks. I don’t feel mentally well, I need someone to sit and talk to.”
Her brother agrees. “I want to see a doctor too, because I have trouble speaking after the shocks I got on my tongue.” With the scale of displacement from Mosul increasing, UNHCR is committed to strengthening psychosocial support and counselling services in half a dozen of the camps that it has opened since the liberation of the city began more than two months ago.
Many of those who fled Mosul witnessed the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbours and struggle with the memories In camps that have recently opened, UNHCR and its partners are providing psychological first aid, which includes specialized counselling known as “reflective listening,” as well as needs assessment and appropriate help.
UNHCR protection officers pay regular visits to Haidar, Zaineb and their family and are arranging medical care and psychological support through a local NGO. After such a harrowing experience, they can at last look to the future. “We are so happy to be in the camp,” Haidar says. “It is the best moment we have had in two years. We were living in death and hell. Now we feel re-born.”
By Catherine Robinson
*All names have been changed for protection reasons.