Technically my title is Middle East correspondent but I roam around everywhere in the region. When I first went to Turkey it wasn’t a huge story for the British market, but then a lot of things start happening after I arrived. There was the attempted coup in 2016, which I was there for. I was also there for the crackdown after the coup, when the government arrested tens of thousands of people on suspicion of taking part in the plot.
After that, the huge story was the fight against Isis. First off, there was the Iraqi army and the US-led coalition, which were retaking Mosul and Raqqa. I was in Iraq and Syria during both of those, and throughout I’ve been covering the Syrian Civil Wars.
For most people who were living under Isis, the actual conflict parts were quite few and far between. Daily life was quite mundane, in a weird way. There were a lot of rules, but if you stuck to them, in general you would be okay. For a lot of women, that meant you couldn’t leave the house. You’d have to cover yourself completely; it was very difficult to walk around; it’s very hot a lot of the time. You also had to go with a male guardian so even going shopping was very difficult.
But people are amazing, they figured out a way around that. A lot of men managed to make ends meet with their families by signing up to these weird rules. You have to wear trousers that are shorter than your ankles, and you have to grow your beard out – okay, that’s annoying – but if it’s the only way you’re going to survive, you just adapt.
Of course, Isis was widely hated and very feared. They had these scary punishments. If you followed the rules, fine, you could probably survive. But at the same time you could be denounced by anyone, or the rules could change. It was a very paranoid state. You could come under suspicion very easily.
I was near the front line in Mosul during the battle to liberate the city. We’d heard that there was a zoo in the eastern part and we weren’t quite sure what to believe, so we went there to see what was going on. I was just blown away. It’s in the middle of a war zone, there are still mortars flying around and you can hear crashes of bombs in the distance. I went up to the lion enclosure and immediately bumped into Abu Laith and Hakam.
I just thought they were hilarious. They were immediately telling me that all the monkeys had escaped, saying: ‘We went and tracked them down. We kept the animals alive, we hate Isis.’ At that time there were still so many people that were scared of saying they hate Isis, but Abu Laith – he was just having the time of his life, showing me how he kept all of the animals alive. Then I went to see Abu Laith’s family and we all got along really well. Afterwards, their story was one of the ones that I would tell people when they asked me what it was really like.
Abu Laith’s younger children are now at school and things are very much back to normal in that sense. But the battle to liberate Mosul was the biggest urban battle since the Second World War. The infrastructure of the city is destroyed, people’s livelihoods are destroyed, people have been displaced. That doesn’t just go away. I really hope that the economy and the security situation in Mosul continues to improve otherwise these kids will have a very difficult future.
There are obviously rising fears about the return of Isis, or how Isis managed to survive. I hope, of course, that Isis won’t be able to come back as a territorial entity. But I do think a lot of the issues that enabled its rise still exist. Disenchantment, poverty and corruption. That kind of environment provides a great way for extremists to gain followers. It’s incredibly important to continue state-building, reconstruction and deradicalisation efforts.
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