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Looking for Hussein. How a boy disappeared in Mosul

Zainab Nabeel’s story is more than the story of one Cordaid colleague in Northern Iraq. It is the story of how ISIL overran Mosul and what this did to one family. The ISIL caliphate – declared by Al Baghdadi in Mosul’s Al Nuri mosque exactly 5 years ago this month – has crumbled. But up to this day, thousands of Iraqi families move heaven and earth to find loved ones that were kidnapped by ISIL. Zainab’s brother Hussein is one of them. Her story is the story of a country.

Zainab Nabeel, Cordaid protection officer based in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. © Cordaid / Mickael Franci

In May 2014, ISIL fighters advance towards Mosul from the west. They will soon take that city, Iraq’s second-largest metropolis. From there they advance west to Tal Afar, Sinjar and – ultimately – Syria. Zainab’s story begins in the weeks before they capture Mosul. Weeks during which ISIL ventures into the heart of the city with small, targeted operations.

The kidnapping

“We lived in Mosul. My parents worked there for the government. When ISIL approached our city, we knew we had to worry. Because of my parents’ work and because of our faith – we are Shia. On May 2, 2014, they kidnapped my brother Hussein. At that time he was 16 years old.”

“He was on his way home from school. At the time, he was preparing for his exams. Witnesses later said they saw how men hit him on the head. He lost consciousness and they put him in the trunk of a car and drove away.”

“We heard Hussein’s voice. ‘Hello daddy, hello daddy’. Then the line went dead.”

Later that day, Zainab’s father receives a phone call from his son’s mobile. “A stranger’s voice said ‘We have your son, Hussein’. They asked us to pay $ 250,000, the same evening. We couldn’t collect that amount at such short notice. My dad asked for a two-day delay. They consented.”

The Nabeel family sells land they own near the Mosul dam. It is not enough. The bank doesn’t allow to withdraw large amounts in one go. They do not meet the 2-day deadline. They can’t call their brother’s number. “We could not call ourselves. And they never called for more than a minute, in order not to betray their location. By that time, we had informed the police of the kidnapping. They were on top of this case and knew how to operate in such critical situations.”

Mosul, May 2019. View of the old city and the Tigris river. © Cordaid / Mickael Franci

“When it turned out that we didn’t have the money, the kidnappers said they would kill Hussein. They allowed us to talk to him one last time. We heard Hussein’s voice. ‘Hello daddy, hello daddy’. Then the line went dead. We thought it was the end.”

Seeking shelter on the campus

It wasn’t. Now and again the Nabeel family continues to receive a call. “Hussein was still alive. They made us hear his voice. If we didn’t pay, not only would Hussein die, they would also go after me. They knew everything about me, what and where I studied, where I went, everything. But they gave us no clue as to where we had to hand over the money or to whom.”

“They also ordered him to record a message saying that Shia Muslims are not true Muslims.”

One time the call lasts longer than a minute, allowing the police to track the location. The spot lies in a desert area near Tikrit, a few hundred kilometers south of Mosul. Later it turned out to be a place where ISIL held many hostages.

For security reasons, Zainab leaves the house in East Mosul and moves to the university campus in the city center. This is where she – still a college student – lives, hides and sleeps for weeks, with 2000 other female fellow students. Disconnected from their families, except by the lifeline of their mobile phones. All of them seek to survive the war and pray for their relatives to find ways to stay alive. 2000 young students, entrenched on the campus while the battle for East Mosul takes place at a stone’s throw away. In this mayhem, Zainab concentrates on this one goal: passing her final college exams. “At least I wanted to do something good for my parents at this difficult time. I had failed the year before. This time I had to succeed.”

The ransom transfer

Shortly after Zainab’s leaves home, ISIL is at the gates of west Mosul. The day before they raid the city, her father receives another call. “The kidnappers told my dad where he had to drop the money. It was in a specific place in a garbage can. They also ordered him to record a message saying that Shia Muslims are not true Muslims and that the Iraqi government is bad. That message mattered even more than the money. Only that would make him a real Muslim. My father did what they asked, recorded the message on CD and deposited it with the money at the agreed place. ISIL then instructed him to go home and wait for his son. In the meantime, the police followed everything from a distance.”

“We saw the army missiles in the sky above us, continuously. It was scary.”

The location and the moment of the ransom transfer are extremely smartly chosen by ISIL. The next day the situation would change completely. And they knew it would, as that day the terror organization invades – and quickly captures – western Mosul. Even though police forces see from a distance how ISIL members collect the money and the CD, by that time the risk to intervene is too great. One day later the invaders capture western Mosul. By then, there’s no way the police could even venture into hostile territory.

The battle for Mosul

After the transfer, on the same day, the kidnappers make another phone call. Plans have changed, once again. “They told us they weren’t able to release my brother. But they allowed my parents to talk to him for one minute. ‘Don’t worry about me’, he told my mum and dad, ‘I am okay.’”

The next day, the full-blown battle for Mosul starts. Zainab and her co-students remain stuck inside the dorm of the university compound, located in eastern Mosul. “It was terrible. We couldn’t reach family members by phone. The staff didn’t allow us to leave the dorm. Nobody could leave their homes or hiding places. If you’d walk in the street, the army would shoot you, thinking you’re from ISIL. At the university, we were right in the middle between army-held territory and ISIL territory. We saw the army missiles in the sky above us, continuously. It was scary. By then, electricity was gone, communication networks were failing. We couldn’t even charge our phones. Asking family members whether they were still alive was impossible.”

A week into the war, the students were practically out of food. The fighting nearby intensified. “The sounds of explosions came nearer. They came from the old city, the place where I thought my brother was kept.”

“I was on the second bus, only 15 meters behind the vehicle that was attacked.”

Life inside the dorm is madness. 2000 young women, trapped between heavy army artillery and advancing ISIL troops, with hardly any food left and failing means to communicate with the outside world. “We heard the war, we saw it”, Zainab recalls, “but we didn’t have a clue what went on.”

Rescue operation

One day a student manages to reach a national television station by phone. It turned out to be the start of a nerve-racking rescue operation. “The media now discussed our situation. Al Maliki, then still prime minister of Iraq, and the Kurdish Region president Barzani asked Kurdish Peshmerga forces to save us.”

Which is what they did. “They came with empty buses.  When I wanted to enter one, it was full. Full of scared and crying people. Other students pulled me inside, through the window. Along the road, on our way to the Kurdistan region, which was safe, a lot of people begged to enter the buses. ISIL was on their heels. The Iraqi army, somehow, had retreated by then, and people were desperate. They couldn’t enter the buses, which was terrible. The Peshmerga set up this operation to save only us, 2000 female students.”

Before the convoy reaches the city of Duhok, the driver of the first bus – an armed Peshmerga soldier – is shot and killed instantly in an ISIL attack. Another Peshmerga guard takes over the wheel and heads towards the planned destination. “I was on the second bus, only 15 meters behind the vehicle that was attacked. People on the bus screamed and asked the driver to stop. He said stopping was even more dangerous and moved on.”

“Thank God my dad had the presence of mind to take everybody’s passport before fleeing.”

All 2000 girls reach Duhok. They all pursue their journey of survival in separate ways. On the outskirts of Duhok city, Zainab is met by a friend of the family and leaves the bus that had saved her life. The operation is one of the most impressive rescue interventions of the war.

Escaping ISIL’s clutches

In Duhok, Zainab finally manages to reach her family on the phone. “It was the first time I heard they had all survived, my parents and two of my other brothers, besides Hussein. They had managed to escape Mosul, all of which was now in the hands of ISIL. They left everything behind. Our house, by now, was occupied by ISIL. Thank God my dad had the presence of mind to take everybody’s passport before fleeing. When I talked to them, they were staying in a small village near Mosul. My parents didn’t want to leave the Mosul area, as they were still hoping for Hussein’s release and presumed he was in the city.”

“Hussein was alive! It felt like we had come to life again.”

Just like Zainab herself, her parents had narrowly escaped death. “ISIL hunted down all people who were related to the government, like my father and mother.” Fleeing once is not enough. Every week Zainab’s parents seek a new hideout in one of the many surrounding villages, asking friends of friends to help them out. This is how they organize their security and escape ISIL’s clutch. All this time, they hear nothing about their son Hussein. Phone calls have stopped.

A maze of checkpoints

In the months that follow, the rule of terror in and around Mosul becomes more brutal by the day. “At that time, not only government people but all Shia people were targeted. Many were kidnapped, killed, even executed publicly”, Zainab explains. Even if by that time Mosul is as good as empty – most people had fled the first few days after the city was raided – ISIL troops now have created checkpoint networks all over the wider area. “In the checkpoints, they had computer access to key information of citizens. They knew people’s jobs and also their religion. So, being on the run had become even more dangerous for my family.”

Dangerous, and expensive. “They found someone willing to take my family to Kurdistan, to the city of Duhok, where I was staying. They paid a lot of money to this person. He managed to find a way through the ISIL checkpoint maze. That is how we were reunited. The same hour we were together again, we fled by car to Turkey, to a place near Istanbul where we had a small property. It was the beginning of August 2014.”

“He never mentioned my name in his phone calls. I am pretty sure he did this to protect me.”

Then one day, many weeks later, there’s a call. Number unknown. “It was a ‘good’ ISIL member”, Zainab recalls, “he passed on my brother. Hussein was alive! It felt like we had come to life again. He only said positive things. We knew, of course, that his kidnappers were standing next to him. But still, it made us intensely happy to hear his voice.”

A thin and twisted lifeline

More than a month later the Nabeels receive a WhatsApp message, coming from Hussein’s number. “We immediately called him, exchanged a few words. Then they cut the line. My dad knew something had changed. It sounded as if he dictated phrases. He also insisted on my parents coming back to Mosul, saying everything was safe and fine there. It was a crazy thing to say. ISIL used him to set a trap for my parents. My father, who talked to Hussein, said he could hear that he was near crying when he said those things.”

This is the lifeline with Hussein:  a short call or WhatsApp message once every couple of months. It’s a thin and twisted line. Hearing his voice, but not being able to do a thing. Never again the kidnappers discuss the idea of releasing him –  which in fact, had been a promise. “He never mentioned my name in his phone calls. I don’t feel sad because of this. I am pretty sure he did this to protect me.”

“Doctors operated my dad immediately. He died in the surgery room.”

Life continues for the Nabeels. It stitches days in exile into stretches of years. To pursue her studies, Zainab leaves Turkey for the capital of the Kurdish Region in Iraq, Erbil. From there, she takes a 1,5-hour bus drive to Kirkuk, where Mosul university had relocated to. And back again in the evening. Every day.

Fatal rumors

On November 17, 2016, the Iraqi military launch the operation to liberate Mosul. “After a month, people started saying that ISIL was killing every person they had imprisoned or kidnapped. As a form of retaliation. My dad couldn’t cope with those rumors. On November 19 he started having problems with his heart. He drove to the hospital, in Turkey. Arriving there, he had a heart attack. Doctors operated him immediately. He died in the surgery room.”

Zainab’s mother calls and asks her to come to Turkey. She’s unable to tell her daughter that her dad has died. “She told me he was sick. But when I arrived at their place in Turkey, I was just in time to see the burial. It was a shock. Just like it was a shock to find out that the rumors that killed my father weren’t true.”

“First, I wanted to give up. Why should I continue? But then I said, I want to make my family happy.”

For 2 months Zainab mourns her father with her mum and 2 of her brothers, in Turkey. Then she goes back. A young man she had fallen in love with while studying in Mosul, was now her husband. He goes to Turkey and takes her back to Erbil. Despite all the grief, or because of it, she goes on chasing this goal of getting a university degree.

Pursuing degrees

“First, I wanted to give up. My dad had died, one brother was missing. My mother was a dead woman in a living body. Why should I continue? But then I said, I want to make them happy. I want my father to be proud of me through the eyes of my mother. My father had put savings aside for me to finish my studies. I couldn’t let this go to waste. So I continued going to Kirkuk, 3 hours back and forth every day.”

Despite the war, the exile, the narrow escapes, despite the loss and the grief, Zainab graduated as a civil engineer at the small alternative site of Mosul University in Kirkuk. Her brothers graduate in Turkey, both as computer engineers. The older one is now pursuing a master’s degree in Malaysia, the younger is a bachelor student in Poland. Somehow, their shoulders manage to carry more than they were made to carry. The weight of a dirty war.

“Later, another person released from the same prison recognized Hussein’s picture too.”

Until today Hussein’s whereabouts are unknown. If he is alive, he doesn’t know his father has died. “The last time he sent us a WhatsApp message was on July 9, 2017. He wrote he was okay. That he was in the old city in Mosul, in Farouk street. He said he was going to be liberated soon. That the Iraqi army was nearby, bombing the place. ‘I will be free soon’ he said. And then nothing. Nothing ever since.”

Separating the guilty from the innocent

For the last two years, Iraqi forces have arrested thousands upon thousands of people who, in some way or another, are associated with ISIL. In camps, prisons and detention centers spread all over the country, the guilty are being sifted from the innocent. But the process is slow and difficult. For the bad guys, it’s easy to deny allegiance to a fallen enemy and to say, for example, that they were kidnapped. For the good guys – like Hussein – it’s often hard to prove they were kidnapped.

“We knew Hussein’s last trace comes from Farouk street. For the rest, no news.”

Truth, as always in a dirty war, is the first victim. Given the high-security levels, investigations are kept secret. Nobody knows what’s going on. Family members are not involved in the investigations. They are kept in the dark completely and haven’t heard of their missing loved ones for ages. Are they detained? If so, where? Did they die? Who knows?

May 2019, Farouk Street, in the old city of Mosul. © Cordaid / Mickael Franci

“After the liberation, we started calling people who had stayed inside the old city during the liberation battle. We knew Hussein’s last trace comes from Farouk street. People said the army arrested almost everyone when entering the old city, and took them away. For the rest, no news.”

A widow roams the country in search of her son

Zainab herself ventures into the old city now and again, showing her brother’s picture to ISIL survivors. Her friends show pictures of Hussein in different parts of town, particularly near prisons and detention camps. No response. Until one day, a person just released from Geyara prison, near Mosul, says he recognizes the picture. “He said he had been in the same cell, a small room that contained 60 persons. He didn’t know his name because inmates weren’t allowed to talk. Later, another person released from the same prison recognized Hussein’s picture too. We told prison authorities but they told us no person with my brother’s name was inside.”

“Being here almost makes me feel as if I am my brother. He is very thin, just like me.”

Today, the Geyara prison is empty. Inmates were relocated to prisons across the country. Often these are temporary prisons, further complicating the search for missing persons. “There are no name lists. Families of missing persons still have no clue whether they are imprisoned or not. A couple of days ago my mother picked up the rumors that people who say they were kidnapped by ISIL were recently moved from the prison near the international airport in Baghdad to prisons in Mosul and Suleymania”, Zainab says.

And so, her mother, a widow in her sixties who can hardly walk, roams the country from Baghdad, to Mosul and Erbil, going from prison to prison, from court to court. Checking shreds of information. Looking for the son taken from her when he was a 16-year-old boy.

Hussein is also on the ICRC list of missing persons. “The ICRC has better access to the prisons than family members”, Zainab knows. “I call them every two weeks, but they haven’t found him yet.”

‘What did he feel?’

On their way to Sinjar, Cordaid colleagues pass through the old city of Mosul. Zainab is one of them. The car stops in Farouk street. The silence is eerie, the destruction is total. Some citizens have returned and, miraculously, are resettling. They live in the rubble and the debris, sell fruit to a handful of returnees. “This is the first time I am in the place where my brother sent us his last message”, Zainab says. “What must he have seen, when this destruction took place? What did he feel, think? Being here almost makes me feel as if I am my brother. Unlike my two other brothers, he is very thin. Just like me. It is hard.”

Is Hussein alive? In the end, it all boils down to that question. “I think he is. I am sure”, Zainab says. “If we didn’t believe he is alive, we wouldn’t keep on searching.”

International human rights law

The search for Hussein is more than the search for a loved one, by a family that has been shattered by war. It is a quest for truth, for justice and peace. It is the quest of an entire country. And it not only traumatizes lives but also shapes them. “I wanted to do humanitarian work, with Cordaid, because of what happened to Hussein and to us. It is also why I have this dream to start studying international humanitarian or human rights law. If possible at the Law Faculty in Leiden. Then, maybe with the ICRC, I will be able one day to go into the prisons and find not only my brother but help others find relatives that have disappeared.”

Read more

Read about Cordaid’s mental health and psychosocial support work for people who were displaced and traumatized by ISIL. Zainab Nabeel is part of the health team that implements this program. Or go the web page of Cordaid in Iraq.