DIYALA, Iraq — After pleading with Iraqi soldiers to let him pass through a checkpoint and proceed to his neighborhood in eastern Mosul, Ahmed Al Ta’ee finally reached home.
No one was expecting him, not even his wife. When he called out to her and his two daughters, they were too afraid to answer. He found them huddled in a back room.
“I was the happiest person on earth,” Al Ta’ee, 32, said in a phone interview. “It was a surprise. I didn’t tell them about my visit.”
As Iraqi forces retook control of eastern Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city which was under the brutal grip of the Islamic State since June 2014 — families like the Al Ta’ees separated by fighting are now finally reuniting, or trying to.
About 30,000 people have returned to Mosul since Iraqi forces launched its offensive in October to take back the city, the United Nations reported Tuesday. And that number has grown since the eastern part of the city was liberated in late January, sometimes overwhelming the checkpoints into the city and the stringent security checks.
Al Ta’ee said he was lucky to cross into the city. He hadn’t seen his wife and two daughters for about 2½ years. His youngest child was a week old when he and his son, Hamza, fled when the Islamic State took control.
Men wait in line for permission to cross the Khazer checkpoint, seen in the background, outside of Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo: Bram Janssen, AP)
Fearing the militant group would recruit and convert then-5-year-old Hamza into an extremist, the Al Ta’ee family fled Mosul in the summer of 2014, as did a half-million other people when the militants overwhelmed government forces.
But their escape did not go well.
Al Ta’ee said Islamic State fighters took $5,000 and two mobile phones belonging to him, then threw him and Hamza in prison for a day. Before their release, the militants took their fingerprints and said they faced death if they tried again to escape “the land of the caliphate.”
He and his son returned home. A month later, they fled again, this time leaving his wife and daughters behind in Mosul. They were safer in the city, he said, adding that it was essential to get Hamza out of the militants’ reach.
Al Ta’ee paid a smuggler to take him and his son to neighboring Syria. From there, they entered Turkey and stayed about 1½ years, desperately trying to get his wife and daughters to join them.
But it was too dangerous to leave Mosul.
In March, Al Ta’ee joined an estimated 1 million refugees and migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece last year. They reached Europe, but did not make it past the Greek-Macedonian border. After many cold nights camping in the Balkans, they returned to war-torn Iraq in June as the U.S.-assisted Iraqi army was retaking territory occupied by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
Mosul remained under the Islamic State’s control, so Al Ta’ee and his son stayed at an uncle’s house in Kirkuk, about 110 miles away, while Iraqi security forces launched their campaign to retake Mosul. It was the biggest military operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion 13 years earlier.
The father and son later traveled to Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to find work, but they finally returned to Mosul as parts of the city were liberated.
Mosul residents play soccer in the liberated eastern part of the city on Feb. 8, 2017. (Photo: Bram Janssen, AP)
“It was an indescribable feeling that I never experienced before,” a shocked Marwa Al Ta’ee, 27, said about seeing her husband and son after more than two years of separation. “I did not know if I should cry or laugh. I had not passed a single night without tears, and without hearing the sound of bullets, bombs and fear.”
In liberated eastern Mosul, power outages are regular, along with phone and Internet service. Schools are still shuttered. Islamic State fighters have shaved their beards to blend in with the rest of Mosul’s residents so they might evade — and ambush — the advancing Iraqi army.
No one dares venture out at night. That’s when “they (the Islamic State) can attack people,” Al Ta’ee said. “Islamic State members are sending drones to bomb people. That is the danger in Mosul now.”
The Al Ta’ee family is relatively safe for now in the eastern part of the city. But on the other side of the ancient Tigris River that splits Mosul — a once cosmopolitan community of Christians, Muslims and other religions — the battle against the militants still rages. Around 750,000 civilians live under the Islamic State in the western half of the city.
For Marwa Al Ta’ee and her family, the future in Iraq remains uncertain. They and 18 other family members moved into an uncle’s house in another district of eastern Mosul to avoid extremists who might have known them in their old neighborhood.
“Iraq is not safe. The Islamic State is following us, and I cannot go anywhere out of fear,” she said. “How can we sleep and live peacefully? This is my only hope, to leave Iraq.”
Plesch reported from Pristina, Kosovo.
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