What Life In Ramadi Under ISIS Rule Was Like
The Iraqi military delivered good news for the Middle East Monday. According to the BBC, the Iraqi city of Ramadi has been liberated from ISIS' reign. The stronghold city in the Western Sunni region of Iraq, which is strategically located just 70 miles west of Baghdad, fell to the militant extremist group on May 17, 2015 after a series of car bombs were detonated. Security officials and tribal fighters sought safety outside of the area, leaving it exceedingly vulnerable. Two months prior, ISIS had blown up a nearby Iraqi military base, creating a state of disarray that facilitated the eventual takeover.
Though the United States contributed coalition airstrikes, Ramadi received inadequate help from the Iraqi government, which is predominantly Shiite. To avoid sectarian violence and further unrest, the Shiite forces stayed out of Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold. Falih Essawi, deputy head of the Anbar Provincial Council, called CNN a month before the defeat with a machine gun in his hands.
This is what we warned Baghdad of what's going to happen.
For the citizens of Ramadi, unrest was the norm for months on end — whether it was due to sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites or between the state and ISIS. But "unrest" can't possibly begin to describe the level of turmoil and chaos. According to the International Security Data site, ISIS has taken control of dozens of cities and villages in Iraq alone. A retrospective observation of what life was like in Ramadi under ISIS' control will put a face to something that few people living in the West can fully comprehend.
In June 2015, just a month after ISIS took hold of the city, the United Nations reported that almost 250,000 civilians had fled Ramadi. The Islamic State planted its roots deep early on by overseeing infrastructural repairs and religious practice. An Iraqi government advisor Hisham al-Hashemi told The Washington Post that after the initial stages, life under ISIS became normal for the people remaining:
They seized everyone’s weapons and killed opponents ... But now there is daily life. There is food in the markets and electricity. It’s like normal.
Peculiarly, this isn't rare among those who have lived under militant religious rule. Terrorist organizations will become charitable in order to gain the trust and respect of civilians under their subjugation. As a prerequisite for this, the native government must have neglected its people, or failed to provide them with public goods such as clean water and electricity. For example, Hezbollah monitors dangerous neighborhoods and provides complimentary medical care and even education to poor Shiites in Lebanon. This does nothing to justify their means or ends. Instead, it complicates their involvement in regions of political unrest, as well as who supports them and why.
According to Mohammed al Dulaimy and Hannah Allam, who write for the McClatchy Washington Bureau, ISIS has followed this common pattern by providing goods and services that the predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad did not provide for the Sunni population of Ramadi. Furthermore, the state of "normalcy" described by al-Hashemi is relative in comparison to the freedoms we experience every day. Electricity may be widely available and roads may be readily repaired, but certain things are expected in return. Many times, as a 27-year-old Ramadi resident told The Washington Post, these expectations involve strict religious oversight:
They are always asking: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Now all of us are required to go to the mosque and pray.'
In Fallujah, just east of Ramadi, the Islamic State administers whippings for minor infractions such as improper dress or smoking, as a 48-year-old resident of the city told McClatchy. According to the publication, the Islamic State also distributes prisoners throughout the area to be executed as an example to residents in more than one city. Men can be executed publicly for being gay, and women can be executed for committing adultery. Children can be scarred by witnessing such acts — or worse, they can mistake them as "brave." A 38-year-old resident of Fallujah told Dulaimy and Allam a story of one child whose mind had been warped by the scare tactics:
A kid I know, 13 years old, always trying to play soccer, came to me and said, ‘Uncle Khaled, Uncle Khaled, I saw the mujahedeen showing us a movie about the bravery of the lions of the State. They are so brave! Look at my phone!' He’d changed the background to the face of the caliph. The sad part is, I couldn’t say a word.
Public goods come at a high price in regions ruled by the Islamic State, and though children's minds may be more malleable, many residents aren't willing to submit themselves to the group's ideology. Other recent accounts show that public goods became quite scarce toward the tail end of the occupation.
According to the UK's Express, Ramadi residents reported suffering food shortages in the beginning of December. Um Mohammed, a physics teacher who recently fled the city, elaborated on the complete state of submission felt by women in particular:
Daesh's ugly face has appeared at last. They are treating women like animals. I feel I was born again now. I feel I was a slave.
In early December, a resident sent an audio message to his friends describing how he was living, as reported in The Wall Street Journal:
ISIS is encircling us from all sides preventing us from leaving the city. We are desperate now. We can’t do anything … We have sick people with no medicine and there is no food to eat ...
CNN's Becky Anderson suggests that Iraq's victory in retaking Ramadi might only be symbolic at this point:
Reports suggest that it is likely that ISIS has moved from the government compound to the north of the city, and there's every chance they could regroup.
The fight will not be finished overnight, but it's one step forward in the refusal of ISIS' ideology, as well as its recruiting tactics. Accounts of life in Ramadi under ISIS show how deeply the group is able to integrate itself into a city's infrastructure, but they also how quickly such efforts fail to provide the people with what they need to live. In conclusion, "unrest" is more complicated than conflict and war. It's an evolving dynamic between two sides that play more than a single role.