Hawija: Residents describe the depravity of life under ISIS

For more than two years, the city of Hawija chafed under ISIS rule. The city, which fell under ISIS control when the militants swept through northern and central Iraq, is the last city in this region to be liberated from the militants. ISIS presence is now confined entirely to western Iraq, particularly  Anbar Province where the city of Qa’im remains under their control.

Up until this point, accounts of life under ISIS rule in Hawija came from the people displaced from the city. Now, the liberation of the city allows for the world to see the conditions first-hand. The details that residents of Hawija provide of life under ISIS is, in many ways, reminiscent of those from Mosul, Raqqa and other parts occupied by the militants.

Residents of Hawija say that the group imposed taxes on many of their businesses and earnings, funnelling them to the group’s leaders (“emirs”), while locals scraped for a living. The militants were also known for looting the homes and properties of those who fled the group. Locals also say that if the militants wanted to appropriate a property for themselves, they would often try to arrest the owner of the property under the pretence that they violated one of the group’s many oppressive laws. If all failed, the militants would simply force the locals out of their homes and claim it for themselves. Many residents of Hawija say that their homes were destroyed by shelling and airstrikes after ISIS militants garrisoned them. They do not bear any ill will to the government forces who launched the strikes, but the militants who made their homes a target to begin with.

The exact death toll of ISIS rule in Hawija is yet to be known. Before the rise of ISIS in 2014, Hawija had a population of 100,000, with the surrounding countryside (Hawija District) containing another 50,000. Many of these people, particularly those belonging to minorities such as Shia Turkmen, were displaced. It is estimated that more than 60,000 people left the region since August alone. Residents of Hawija further say that entire families were executed during the group’s brutal rule.

What happens next in Hawija is a matter of debate. The city is located in the politically sensitive Kirkuk Province, just miles away from the provincial capital that is the source of a dispute between Baghdad and Erbil. Furthermore, many of the militants have been able escape to the nearby mountains and could launch terrorist attacks. However, for many of the locals, their immediate concerns is to return to their homes. They have seen first-hand that the group’s claims of just and stable governance was a farce and want nothing to do with the militants that have brought so much suffering to their lives.