Fallujah, a city about an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, has been under ISIS control since February. But here’s the weird thing: Nobody seems to know what’s going on there. Earlier this month, the AFP wire service ran a widely read story with the headline “War reporters lament ‘news black holes’ in ISIS-held zones” — with Fallujah being the first city mentioned. Noting that “even war-hardened reporters dare not venture” into ISIS-held territory, the report quoted a journalist who described it as “a war without witnesses.” In a world of saturated news coverage and ubiquitous social media, the sheer lack of information from a sizable city at the center of a major geopolitical conflict has been odd and disconcerting.
Over the past several weeks, however, Daily Intelligencer has been in contact with a young woman — we’ll call her Zainab — whom we believe is currently living in Fallujah. Intelligencer reached out to her after doing some online sleuthing, looking for residents of the city who might be willing to discuss the situation there. In the interest of her own safety, Zainab asked that her name and other identifying characteristics not be shared, but there are several pieces of evidence that support her claim that she lives in Fallujah. She has also provided images from within the city, some of which she says she took with her cell phone. Her accounts roughly correspond to the little bit that is known about what is happening there.
“Ok. I’ll tell u everything,” she writes via Twitter at the beginning of a long correspondence in which she describes, in limited English, her daily life. “U can ask all what u want and u r wlcm anytime.” Zainab says she is in her early 20s and and hopes to be a teacher one day. That goal remains a distant one, though, because the university where she would get her certification and the grade schools where she would like to work are all closed. Much of the city’s activity seems to have ground to a halt. Doctors have become scarce, she said, after many of them fled to escape ISIS. Both of her parents used to work middle-class jobs, although they haven’t been able to report to work recently. Two of her six siblings have moved abroad — one to the U.S. and one to Jordan.
Communicating with Zainab is difficult. She only has power for a small portion of the day, a result, she tells me, of the central government in Baghdad cutting off Fallujah. The city hasn’t had proper electricity in three months. (It has been widely reported that Baghdad may be cutting power to ISIS-controlled areas to turn public opinion against militants.) She also says the army has surrounded the city, and is stopping the flow of food and supplies. Prices for basic goods have skyrocketed; with gas in short supply, townspeople have taken to burning wood for cooking. Everyone is worried about winter, she says.
In general, the Iraqi government, not ISIS, is her biggest complaint. She believes the Iraqi military “is out to kill and insult us.” Zainab sent photos of smoke plumes and said that they resulted from barrel bombs dropped on a local market by Baghdad last month. (The Iraqi Army denies these charges, but other media outlets have reported the same thing.) “I want everyone to know that bombing always hurt on civilians not ISIS,” she says. Much of her information seems to come from local pages on social-media sites, which, it may be assumed, carry a pro-ISIS slant.
Zainab, like the ISIS militants and most residents of Fallujah, is a Sunni Muslim. In Iraq, Shia Muslims constitute the popular majority and control the national government. With sectarian strife tearing Iraq apart, Zainab doesn’t mind living under ISIS — the group is Sunni, “so they are always on our side.”
But she is quick to add that her allegiance isn’t absolute: “We need the ISIS to save us from the government but that doesn’t mean we completely support them,” she writes. She knows that many of the fighters, including leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had been imprisoned by Americans during the Iraq War, and came out harsher and more radicalized.
ISIS’s fundamentalist take on Islam and the group’s at-gunpoint enforcement of highly conservative interpretations of religious law don’t seem to bother Zainab. She wears the niqab, a face covering that shows only her eyes, and has been doing so since she was a teenager, long before ISIS took Fallujah.
In addition to requiring modest dress from women, the militants have taken aim at tobacco and other vices since they took over: “They fire cigarette shops and prevent it.” But Zainab believes that ISIS is, for the most part, just following the Quran. “People of Fallujah all Muslims so there is no much laws to be put here,” she says — in other words, since most of the city was already abiding by a strict interpretation of Islamic law, not that much has changed.
Zainab supports ISIS’s killing of Yazidis, an Iraqi minority with its own religion, because she sees them as “devil worshipers.” She writes:
The yazidies run away to senjar mounten..the ISIS ask them to come down and be muslims and hundreds of them accept that but there is still some of them who stay there..the media said that they are living a very hard life and dying out of hunger..but that was not true the[y] said that just to make world hate ISIS and the American congress admit that.
I can give u a youtube link to show u how they become muslims.
She generally supports ISIS’s mass executions, but takes issue with the method, describing beheadings as an “ugly way” to mete out death sentences. She seems to accept ISIS’s explanation that the American journalists the group beheaded were military agents — “The ISIS said that they weren’t journalists. they were solders working with th US army” — but is concerned that perhaps we had known them personally: “Were they ur friends?” she asks.
She notes that Christians can live safely under ISIS control by paying a religious tax called the jizya, while Muslims would pay a different tax, as dictated by the Quran.
On a typical day, she sleeps in and sits reading with her family until the generator kicks in. They pay a monthly fee for access to a generator, which gives them about eight hours of power and lets them use the internet. Her parents still get their government salaries, which are paid out to people in other cities who then transfer the money to Zainab’s family.
Nonetheless, she says the current situation is preferable to what life was like under American occupation. Back then, she says, she slept in her hijab at night out of fear that someone would suddenly break in. They will stay as long as the the Iraqi Army doesn’t enter the city, Zainab explains, adding that “InshaAllah” it won’t happen. But, she says, “our future is unknown now.”