After more than two years of enduring Islamic State's harsh rule, desperation trumped fear for Assad Ali Hassan and other residents of Faziliya, Iraq. A few dozen militants controlled the village near the ISIS stronghold of Mosul with torture, fear and bureaucracy, recounted some who survived the occupation.
The small band were the only ones with weapons, enabling them to exert outsize power over the 7,000 villagers, said Muhammad Ayub, an English-speaking graduate of Mosul University. "Sometimes one of them would just show up in a village around here wearing a suicide belt and blow himself up," said Mr. Hassan, 45 years old.
There might be no apparent justification for it besides ensuring people remained terrified, he said. Survivors from villages surrounding Mosul recounted how the militants kept them impoverished and scared, crushing them with a bureaucracy that included levying frequent fines, encouraging children to inform on parents and ensuring people depended on the caliphate for essential supplies.
Reports from Mosul, still under Islamic State control, suggest the militants there have stepped up their brutality, executing dozens suspected of aiding Iraqi security forces and herding thousands of families into positions as human shields.
Though Faziliya and other villages in the area were primarily Sunni, locals who decided to stay and live under the new regime lost faith in their Sunni occupiers after the militants showed a brutal face and piled on the regulations. "They would get small children like this to flog grown men in public," Mr. Hassan said, gesturing to his young son. "They would slide a pen into your beard and if it didn't stay, if it fell out because the beard wasn't long enough, you would get lashings."
Such punishments often would be meted out in a public square, the violator forced to stand on a single floor tile. If the offender wavered and stepped off, the lash count would start over, villagers said. Women were subjected to a different, painful punishment: They were bitten. A woman, for example, was deemed to be indecent.
A female ISIS militant would preside over a quick trial, then administer the punishment. Was a hand too exposed? After a summary judgment, the militant would bite it. Risking penalty of death for using a cellphone, Mr. Hassan began making secret calls to his brother Rifad, 40, who had escaped the village after it fell to the militants in 2014. Assad reported Islamic State positions to Rifad, who then passed the information to Kurdish intelligence.
On Friday, freed a day earlier by Kurdish forces advancing toward Mosul, the brothers tearfully reunited in Faziliya. In the same village, just a few days after it was retaken, a woman opened her closet and pulled out an all-black niqab with a full-face covering, even the eyes. And black gloves. She wore colorful clothes, the way she had dressed before Islamic State came to town, she said, as she looked at the niqab.
She reluctantly put it on to demonstrate how she was forced to dress for more than two years. As soon as she put it on, covered in black, her young daughters started to cry. She pulled it off quickly and said, "I can't believe I had to wear that for more than two years," then added, "I can't believe I was able to put it on again." Resident Yusuf Muslim, 33 years old, recounted the two days he spent in prison after being accused of being a member of the Kurdish government.
The fighters found a standard Kurdish ID card in his home, blindfolded him and bundled him into a cab bound for Mosul. Over the course of two days they interrogated him, constantly racking the bolts of their Kalashnikov rifles to scare him before they finally released him, leaving him in Mosul to find his way home. "I thought I was going to die, that it was the end," he said, holding his charge sheet, stamped with the caliphate's seal.
"Sometimes they will arrest people, tell their families they've been executed, but then bring them home after a few days." Villagers were allowed scant access to electricity--though villagers said Faziliya had power 24 hours a day for the past two years because the militants needed it to dig tunnels and make bombs.
Residents became integral to the militants' operation because their presence as human shields prevented Kurdish mortars and U.S.-led air power from freely bombarding the village. Mr. Hassan recalled how those caught smoking had to spend three days in prison. The costs of medicine, health care and road tolls were exorbitant for anyone who wasn't a card-carrying Islamic State fighter.
He said he kept his cellphone wrapped in plastic and buried in the ground. "If they found your phone, they would kill you," he said. Other villagers showed off SIM cards they had wrapped in plastic to bury in the ground; one man kept his card concealed in the waistband of a pair of sweatpants. As Kurdish Peshmerga forces began their ground offensive on the front east of Mosul two weeks ago, villagers said the militants were more focused on preparing for combat and focused less on tormenting villagers.
Then, just two days before the main assault, the militants arrested 15 people, accusing them of using phones to call Peshmerga. They haven't been heard from since. In villages south of Mosul, residents said militants became particularly vengeful in the days before Iraqi forces closed in. They began hoarding fuel and water, leaving the villagers to drink filthy well water.
Iraqi soldiers who encountered families that were able to flee said they were stunned at the condition of the survivors. They were unkempt and starving, clinging to their meager belongings or trailed by flocks of sheep and cows. In the village of al-Shag, about 20 miles south of Mosul, two dozen people from four families were settling back into their modest mud-and-brick homes.
They had spent two terrifying nights in the middle of dried-out fields caught in the crossfire between militants and advancing Iraqi police forces. They said they had been given a choice by a group of about 30 militants who stormed their village last week: leave or die. "We ran east and stayed in the middle of nowhere," said Saleh Hussein, a 69-year-old farmer.
"We suffered. It was cold and we had no food for anyone, including all these children in our family." The militants had evicted them not to save them but to send them into the line of fire of Iraqi forces--whom the villagers didn't know were there. It was only when they were rescued, Mr. Hussein said, that they realized they had been deployed as human shields.
By Ben Kesling and Tamer El-ghobashy