Like hundreds of elderly men and women from the Iraqi city of Mosul, Haji Ahmed left in August to perform Haj. Leaving the militant-held city comes at a high price.
Many residents are now forced to give up the deed to their homes as collateral to ensure they return — a tactic the militant group uses to keep civilians from fleeing the city. For four weeks, the septuagenarian and some 580 pilgrims from Mosul did their religious duty — each of them obtaining an official Daesh-stamped exit document and a discrete stamp in their Iraqi passports that reads “Nineveh,” the province where Mosul is located, and the year according to the Islamic calendar: 1436. The Iraqi government permitted only those above age 60 to exit militant territory, escorting them by bus to Baghdad, where they then flew to Saudi Arabia. But nearly two months later, the Mosuli Hajaj, as they are known in Arabic, are desperately trying to get home — blocked by Iraqi and Kurdish authorities near the northern city of Kirkuk who refuse to open a corridor back into militant-held territory. “They didn’t really give us an explanation,” said Haji Ahmed, who provided only his nickname and said he doesn’t know his actual age. “They just told us to wait here.
That was six days ago. I just want to go back to my home.” The group has been squatting at a dusty, fly-infested mosque ever since, with little food or medicine, and mounting fears for the fate of their families in Mosul and for their homes if they don’t return. “My daughter … is worried about me and I am worried about her,” said a woman who identified herself only as Oum Zamaa, or Zamaa’s mother. “We are so afraid that an operation to liberate Mosul will begin and we will be here,” said Oum Hijray. “What if we are separated from our children? That would be a disaster.” Most of those declined to provide their full names or offer details about their lives under the Daesh group, visibly afraid for their safety and that of their families back home. Whatever the reason, most of the stranded pilgrims said they have accepted the new norm in Mosul, while sharing almost no opinions on the Daesh group itself. When asked his name, one pilgrim replied: “Haven’t I suffered enough?”