“Freedom is everything”, the auditorium echoed with the voice of Omar Mohammed, a historian and a citizen journalist who created the news blog ‘The Mosul Eye’ to bring to light the several atrocities that the Islamic state committed when they invaded the Iraqi city of Mosul. This was his first address to an Indian audience, and it happened on the second day of the media fest, Article 19.
The Iraqi city of Mosul was invaded by the Islamic state in 2014. “I still remember the night they took our freedom away from us. It was 3 am, and a group of terrorists, almost 300 in number took over the place, I was grading papers, and I still have them with me”, he recalled the happenings of the night that the Islamic state invaded the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The blog ‘Mosul eye’, was created to report all the things that were taking place in Mosul after the invasion. Knowing the nature of the Islamic state, anyone that speaks ill of them faces the consequences. Similarly Omar Mohammed lived in fear of being revealed, “Whenever someone asked me what I thought about what’s happening back home, I used to tell everyone that it’s none of my business, but at the same time I used to go home and report the events”, he says while talking about keeping his identity a secret. He continued talking about how he tackled several problems that came his way and how he thinks that the future is beautiful and filled with hope. He advised everyone to seek knowledge as it is the strongest weapon out there.
We had an excellent opportunity of asking Omar a few questions, ranging from the time he decided to embark on this dangerous journey to how Mosul is rekindling its spirit.
MTTN: There was a low point in your life where you had decided to give up on life, with a risky haircut and smoking by the Tigris river. What lead to such a decision and what was the overall impact?
OMAR: I don’t believe in religion. I am scared of all religions, but I, myself, am not religious. At that moment I had decided to give up, and then I didn’t give up, I felt that I have a message to deliver. I shouldn’t give up now. I felt that I was given a new life. That’s why I became stronger at that moment. It’s very difficult to explain it, to be honest. It’s something that you feel yourself, but you feel stronger after you were so tired and fed up.
MTTN: After the inception of Mosul Eye, how did you work towards keeping it in a protected environment where you could not get caught? Have there ever been any incidents where people/agencies were suspicious of you?
OMAR: I have always wanted to say this; it was also one of the reasons why Mosul Eye was there: I was not alone. The people of Mosul were with me. They were supporting me. They were sending me messages of the things that they were seeing, but could not comment on as they were afraid of ISIS seeing them. They were giving me hope by telling me that Mosul Eye was the spot of light in this darkness. It is the people who gave me the strength to continue. I was the voice of the voiceless. Mosul Eye was the voice of the people because when I speak, I speak on behalf of the city. This was a very strong connection between the people of Mosul and I. I would say that Mosul Eye was not even a person; it was the whole city.
MTTN: At what exact moment did you decide to leave the country? Was it difficult to leave the country you were trying to help when the uprising was at its strongest?
OMAR: I left the city for two reasons. First, I was afraid that my family would be punished for what I did. If something were to happen to my family, I would never live with it. I had to live with the idea that my family would be killed. I, myself, had accepted that price from the beginning. If the price was to be death, I had accepted the risk, but if something were to happen to my family, I would never forgive myself.
The second reason is being alive; I was hoping that the truth is more important than just being killed. I don’t believe in this kind of sacrifice of yourself and that you should be a hero when you are dead. I don’t want to be a hero. I want to protect the culture of the city, and the only way to protect it is by being alive. That also gave me the meaning and importance of the narrative of history, and also how dangerous this was. That is why I wanted to protect it and take it to another safe place.
The mission did not change; it evolved. It evolved in a way that the mission could now be done differently. It gave me different and better opportunities to deal with the situation in Mosul.
MTTN: Your motto has been-to trust no one. Document everything. What was it like roaming around the city gathering information? What kind of prep went into it, and how did you know what and who was authentic or reliable?
OMAR: Trust no one. Document everything- I made sure I documented things myself. If I wanted to continue with this vision, I had to be safe, and the only way to be safe was for no one to know about this. I said trust no one because people could talk, whether it was my family or my friends. They would say something and I would lose everything. When I am dead, who is going to write the history of this city? I should be alive to write it. So, that’s why, trust no one.
ISIS would also play games to track me down. Being alone and documenting everything is the most powerful thing I have ever experienced in my whole life.
MTTN: You have gone in deep with the extremist groups for the time when you were writing the blog. Undoubtedly you have seen a lot, but was there a point in your career that you could say is the most gruesome memory?
Omar: To be honest everything, every movement ISIS did was simply brutal. Every single beheading, every single execution, every single stoning of people, everything that ISIS did was in such a brutal way that it was beyond the scope of imagination. I remember every single moment that I saw. Those are memories such that one can never forget.
MTTN: It has been almost a year since the ISIS forces have been suppressed at Mosul. Since then, you have dedicated your efforts into rebuilding the central library at the Mosul University. How do you think this library will become a stronghold for the city to develop and prosper?
Omar: It is already happening. One of the goals of this mission by reviving the library at Mosul is to connect Mosul with the rest of the world through books. It is to tell the world that we do not want bombs, we want books. When people from around the globe send books to Mosul, they are sending us new lives so that we can help ourselves to develop and modernize. The city is desperate for books and knowledge. Once the people of Mosul get this gift of knowledge, they will acknowledge the possibility and power to protect their city. They will look at their city and see that it is connected with the rest of the world through books and through knowledge. It is this knowledge that connects them with all the different cultures of the world. This will empower the people.
MTTN: As a journalist, it was necessary for you to spread your blog far and wide so that people of Mosul, as well as people from other countries, could get informed about the conditions of the city. What measures did you have to take to spread Mosul Eye and make it an internationally recognized reporting blog?
Omar: I had realized it from the beginning that the only way to fight ISIS was through a global
platform. For this reason, I have used English as the communicating language for Mosul Eye. Also, the blog became internationally recognized for the work it did which was to make people aware of the city’s condition. A strong motive of Mosul Eye was to give hope to the people of the city and to give this hope an international voice. It was these efforts to connect to the people which gave Mosul Eye the global recognition that it has today.
MTTN: Having spent so much time among the ISIS extremists, did you ever understand how these terrorists allocated and used their resources to expand their power and control?
Omar: The major source and power of the ISIS were media. The terrorists were well trained and they used the media to influence the young unbiased minds. However, when Mosul Eye existed, it needed no such training or resources. It spoke the fair truth on behalf of the city, and this truth was stronger than the threats of these terrorists. It was this strength which gave the people hope.
MTTN: Since ISIS have been repelled, do you think there is a sense of security among the people of Mosul or do you think that there might be a possibility that ISIS may take over again?
Omar: Both points have some truth in them. There is still a feeling among people that ISIS may take over again. It is not just the people, but the military administration as well who believe that these circumstances are probable. A report came in two days ago by the Department of Defence (DoD) of the state, mentioning that the activities of ISIS are on the rise and there is a chance of a possible attack. They advise that all forces be prepared for the invasion and well-equipped to repel it.
The audience was very interactive and asked him several questions regarding an array of topics; the questions ranged from bringing back Iraq to the economic front to missing home.
The talk concluded with the team of Article 19 revealing to him that students and people from around Manipal have collected books, in effort of rebuilding the libraries of Mosul, “I am honoured to have addressed the youth of India, it’s the best nation and the mother nation of the world” he said very cheerfully, bidding adieu to the beaming audience.
Aarohi Sarma, Tejas Mishra and Aminah Neemah for MTTN
Image courtesy: Tushar Machavolu