The Secret Historian: How Omar Mohammed Documented and Survived the Brutality of Islamic State in Mosul

Apr 17, 2018, 05:00 PM

The ancient Iraqi city of Mosul has a history spanning thousands of years. It operated for centuries as a trading hub, where all colors and creeds made their mark. It has, over centuries, seen its share of invaders, and of bloodshed. Until recently, Mosul had borne the scars of its past while maintaining its beauty and antiquity. But then, it fell to Islamic State, in June 2014, when the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the city’s al-Nuri mosque and declared the creation of a caliphate.

This heralded the beginning of a brutal and vicious occupation that lasted three years, until Iraqi forces, supported by a US-led coalition, defeated Islamic State in 2017. This dark period in Mosul’s history has left thousands dead and many key historical sites in ruins.

One local historian, a man named Omar Mohammed, witnessed the worst atrocities of that time, such as public beheadings, floggings and beatings. He felt passionately about documenting the human rights abuses and about maintaining the historical integrity of the city. So, he began blogging anonymously through his Mosul Eye page, leading a double life at great personal risk to himself.

Mohammed played the role of the dutiful local, changing his dress according to Islamic State rules, growing out his beard and wearing short trousers. He befriended IS fighters, impersonated doctors at local hospitals, and operated as a taxi driver, all in the name of gathering valuable information about the behavior of the extremist group, the victims left in their wake, and the damage they’d caused to Mosul’s antiquity.

His blog gained international attention and became a vital source for news organizations, including here at Storyful. Throughout the occupation, no one knew the identity of the blogger, including his own family. Mohammed’s work took an unexpected turn when he was contacted by the relative of a family trapped in Mosul, asking for help getting them out. He was successful in his efforts and proceeded to help the escape of almost 100 families, including his own.

Mohammed had several brushes with capture, but managed to escape in 2015. He fled to Europe, where he was given asylum.

Last week, Mohammed delivered a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Before his talk, he spoke to our reporter Rhona Tarrant. Here, in the latest Storyful Podcast, we hear his extraordinary story.

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