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“Somehow, I managed to not go crazy.” The story of Mohammed

Story Food systems
Iraq -

Mohammed Ali Mohammed, 35 years old, father of five, used to be a farmer and a police officer before ISIL occupied his village. In 2015, he was kidnapped and tortured. Today he is a shop owner in Gharib, a village some 10 km outside Hawija city, near areas where ISIL cells continue to carry out attacks and terrorise the population.

Conflict and climate change have largely destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and small agribusiness owners in Hawija. It was once Iraq’s most prosperous agricultural centre. Cordaid joined hands with others to assist hundreds of farmers and SME owners in Hawija in growing their businesses. Despite the odds and traumas of extreme drought, violent extremism, nepotism, and 21st-century warfare and geopolitics, they carry on. Mohammed is one of them.

“It was August 5, 2015”

“When ISIL came, everything stopped. I tried to make a living by secretly trading cigarettes for a while, but I knew that at one point I had to run. I am a farmer but I had also been a police officer for seven years. And they were after anyone related to the authorities. So I fled with other men who were wanted by ISIL, but without my family. It would have been too risky for them. I tried to reach Salah Al-Din, but we were caught in the mountains. A dozen cars full of ISIL fighters suddenly surrounded us. We were ambushed. It was August 5, 2015.”

man and children inside a room
Mohammed Ali Mohammed, 35 years old, father of five, used to be a farmer and a police officer before ISIL occupied his village. In 2015, he was kidnapped and tortured by ISIL. Today he is a shop owner in Gharib, a village some 10 km outside Hawija city. Here, he is inside his home with some of his own children and children of his relatives.
man in shop behind counter
Mohammed Ali Mohammed in his shop. The sweets attract the kids of the village.
man in shop behind counter
Mohammed Ali Mohammed wears a face mask and gloves throughout the day. The drugs he takes to provent his body from rejecting the kidney donated by his brother, have lowered his immunity a lot.
three men inside shop
Here’s Mohammed with his two brothers. The one in the back donated his kidney to Mohammed.

“Most of those who had tried to escape, including women and kids, were released. But I and five other police officers were taken away, blindfolded, to a house in Hawija city. Others had been taken there before us. We were about fifty imprisoned in one room. Some of the inner walls had been broken down. For a month we were tortured. They did all kinds of things. Strangulation, suffocation, starvation, beatings with guns. And electric shocks. They specifically applied shocks on my kidneys.

It was extremely scary. They threatened to kill us many times. When they entered the room, you knew it could be your last hour. And we were so hungry. But sometimes we couldn’t eat even the little rice or meat they gave us because of the fear inside.

Somehow, I managed to not go crazy. The idea that everything was in the hands of God gave me some peace.”

From farmer to shop owner

“After a month, our captors took half of the detainees away. They released the other half, including myself. Later, we found out they had executed all of the men in the other group.

I went back home. My wife and kids were in disbelief. They thought I had been killed. I was happy to be back, but I couldn’t cope with my life any longer. Before, I was a farmer, and now I couldn’t farm anymore. I was too ill, both my kidneys had been destroyed. My brother ended up donating one of his kidneys. Still, farming is out of the question. That hurts. We have been farmers for generations, growing wheat, onions, tomatoes… We still have the family land, but others now do the farming.

I am confident things will work out well in the future.

So I changed my course. With all the medical costs I had to cover and household expenses, we desperately needed money. Two years ago I opened a small grocery shop. I sell all kinds of things, rice, flour, sugar, sweets for kids, chickpeas, and even clocks. At one point I was even too ill to run the shop, I almost had to close it down. Because of the medicine I take to stop my body from rejecting the newly donated kidney, my immunity levels are very low. Since Covid-19, I constantly wear a face mask and gloves.”

Slowly growing business

“The support we got from the Blossom Up project helped us a lot. It taught us how to attract more customers, to find the right price/quality ratio in our assortment, so that people can afford what we offer and still come back. Here, people have little to spend, so high prices won’t work. Still, we need to make some profit.”

“With the grant we received, I bought storage racks, fridges, and a freezer. And I was able to expand my assortment. Before, that kind of investment was impossible because of all the medical costs.”

“Business is slowly increasing. I did better as a farmer though. Today, I earn about half of the money I made by working the land. For three years now, I have tried to get some of the financial compensation I am entitled to as a victim of ISIL atrocities. We went to Kirkuk to apply for that, and we even have a lawyer on the case. No results.”

“But I am confident things will work out well in the future. Now, with the support we received, I feel that my new business can grow. The least I can do is work hard and make sure that my kids can go to school and successfully finish their education. So far, I manage to do that, and it fills me with pride. Myself, I dropped out at the age of ten, because I had to work on my father’s land. I still regret that. During the ISIL occupation, my oldest daughter couldn’t attend classes any longer. Luckily, afterward, she continued studying.”

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid