(The Guardian newspaper) On the evening of 11 August 2014, Assam Dara Ali was at home in Jalawla, southern Iraq. His wife, Teba, was putting their two young children to bed; meanwhile, Kurdish officials in Erbil were beginning to report that Jalawla had fallen to Isis. “Suddenly we heard cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’, God is greatest, from the mosque,” Assam tells me. Isis was broadcasting its takeover message from the minarets, visible from the family’s courtyard.
In the preceding months, fighters had seized large swaths of Iraq: the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the western towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, as well as Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The newly declared caliphate of ISIL was expanding by the day.
Assam’s eight-year-old daughter, Hanin, had heard the same call of “Allahu Akbar” at night before, when the imam announced the end of Ramadan – a time of celebration with presents, feasting and sweets. “Daddy,” she said, running to her father in great excitement, “is it Eid?”
Assam told Teba and the children to hide under the stairs. “We stayed awake all night. We were afraid they would come into the house and kill us.” People began loading up minivans and cars, escaping along the backroads Isis soldiers wouldn’t know. Assam and his family left early the next morning, heading for Teba’s parents’ home in Baghdad. “We called neighbours and they told us which way was safe,” he says. There was only time to take their identity cards.
It is an early morning in late autumn, and I am in the southern Iraqi desert, driving on an empty road towards the Iranian border. There are two things you notice as you approach Jalawla, about 100 miles north-east of Baghdad. The first is people selling local produce at the side of the road: pyramids of pomegranates, caskets of plump radishes. The second is the multiple checkpoints. Since they recaptured Jalawla from Isis last November, the peshmerga – Kurdish armed fighters – has turned the town into a fortified citadel. At its entrance, there is a queue of dusty 4x4s, belching taxis, bicycles; a commotion of peshmerga and police officers; young men pushing carts, hawking fruit and cigarettes. An armed soldier taps on the window, leans in to check our documents and waves us through.
Jalawla was once a town of about 80,000, a place where people wanted to live and to visit. It had 12 mosques, good schools, a hospital with a reputation for skilled doctors and excellent maternity care. The youth club offered karate and had recently staged a highly praised performance of Oliver Twist. But mostly what drew people here was the market: a labyrinth of stalls both outside and indoors, selling everything from melons and tomatoes to fine jewellery and mobile phones. There was nothing like it for miles around.
Most of the town’s inhabitants fled during its 15-month occupation by Isis – to nearby towns, to Baghdad, or farther afield in Iraq. Around 300 families stayed behind, either because they had been told they would be “safe” under Isis rule, or because they were sympathisers.
Tipped off by local informers, Isis burned homes and businesses belonging to Shiite and Kurdish families, blew up a Shiite mosque and killed anyone with a connection to the Iraqi military. The death toll from the occupation includes 20 civilians murdered by Isis, as well as 175 peshmerga and 40 Asayesh, Kurdish security forces. Just about every home was looted – and not exclusively by Isis.