Illustration by Jason Arias.

In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, in the lobby of the Tangram hotel, my interpreter Salar and I watched the newest ISIS execution videos. Salar had access to videos that weren’t public. “The Chinese thought of this one,” said Salar, a fifty-year-old Sunni from Kurdistan. Four men in a cage were lowered into a swimming pool and held underwater until they drowned. They were raised wet and limp. A prisoner’s mouth oozed foam. “It’s not very nice actually,” he said.

A restaurant on the third floor of the hotel overlooked a detention center for terrorists. In the front lobby there were free apples, but not many customers. Our waiter, Basim, a young Iraqi Christian, served us coffee.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bartella,” he said.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Did you see my house?” he asked. “Did you see if my things were still there?”

Salar and I laughed. But Basim was blinking. “Did Daesh take my stuff?” he asked. We didn’t know. Bartella was still under the control of ISIS, I said. We were close enough to see the village through the lens of a telescope.

In the next video, ISIS fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a car soaked with fuel and packed with prisoners. The men burned alive. Another video, called “The Reality of the American Raid,” was a response to an American raid on a prison in Hawija. It began with an ISIS fighter sawing the head off a Kurdish prisoner while three other prisoners watched. The camera zoomed in on the men’s faces while they watched the beheading. The executioner set the severed head on the body. Though the head was no longer attached to the body, the mouth opened and gulped for air.

After that we saw a video of a Kurdish peshmerga soldier and a young ISIS fighter in a ditch. The peshmerga soldier gave water to the ISIS fighter, and the fighter kissed the peshmerga soldier’s hand. “Who are you?” the fighter asked. “We are humans, just like you,” the peshmerga soldier said. Then the peshmerga soldier climbed out of the ditch and shot the ISIS fighter. No news outlet would publish the second half.

Basim sat down next to us on the couch. “Tomorrow I’m leaving,” he said.

“You are fleeing ISIS?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to find love.”

He had been in love with a woman in Bartella. They dated for many years and planned to marry, but her family didn’t like Basim because he wasn’t from a wealthy family. They tried again and again, but the family wouldn’t approve the marriage.

“I’m going to take the boat to Greece,” he said. “I hope I don’t die.”

On the road to Kirkuk from Erbil: a replica of the United States White House on a manicured lawn; a desert controlled by Shiite militias; memorials for martyrs; an animal market with camels, snakes, and a monkey who chewed its own tail. Miles of treeless land eaten up by machinery.

Salar and I had been driving back and forth from Erbil to Kirkuk every day. Kirkuk is an oil-rich city on the border of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and Iraq proper. Throughout the city, fires burned gasses released from the oil below the fields. Kirkuk is also a famously diverse city, with Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and a Christian minority who, for hundreds of years, have fought one another to control the city’s oil. South of Kirkuk, on the frontline with ISIS, is a checkpoint called the Maktab Khalid. It divided Kurdish territory from ISIS-controlled areas. Salar knew a smuggler and humanitarian named Emad Matti who was buying Christian hostages from ISIS in Mosul and smuggling them through this border.

When I visited Emad Matti at his church compound in Kirkuk last October, he told me he’d started helping Christians because it was his duty to God. In Hawija, he said, ISIS beheaded two sons and returned a body and a head to the mother. The body belonged to one son and the head to the other. “That had great impact on me,” he said. “It touched my consciousness.”

Like many Iraqis, Matti seemed driven to action by violence, but also immune to it. “The death angel is coming for us all,” he said. “I don’t fear death.”

On the way to Kirkuk, Salar and I had stopped at a restaurant off the highway called Abdullah Rest. It was a large restaurant with gleaming plastic tables. A line of waiters leaned against the wall. Refrigerators groaned near the restrooms. We ate chicken kebab, basmati rice, french fries, garlic flatbread, chicken soup, hummus, and a sweet rice dish. Matti told me he had also been to Abdullah Rest. In 2008, two suicide bombers walked into the restaurant and blew themselves up. It was the end of Eid, the Muslim holiday, and the restaurant was busy with families eating in celebration. Matti arrived to the scene. “Kebab mixed with flesh mixed with blood!” he said. The dishes were still set, and in a bowl he discovered a strange meat. It was the brain of the man at the table.

I changed the subject and asked about a Christian he’d retrieved free of charge from the caliphate. “He was too annoying,” Matti said. “Even for ISIS. They were just fed up with him. He is very strange. He’s half crazy. I tried hard to fix him, but he’s always on drugs. I think he was a drug dealer.”

The man’s name is Anes A. Musa, and he is fifty-five years old. When Matti retrieved Musa from the checkpoint, he asked for Musa’s Islamic State identification card. Musa pretended he didn’t have one. Matti asked again and kept asking until he finally discovered the card hidden in Musa’s sock.

“He is a very suspicious, weird person,” Mattie told me, “and he’s been blacklisted from working with the coalition forces.” Musa, he explained, used to translate Arabic for American troops during the second Iraq War. In fact he was well educated. He’d lived in France, Italy, and the United States and had worked as an Arabic translator for Titan Corps when American troops were in Mosul. He hadn’t been a poor, easily brainwashed jihadist.

One day Matti had found Musa doing a handstand in his office. He asked, “Why are you upside down?” And Musa said, “I’m praying.” And he said, “But why are you praying upside down?” And Musa said, “Because I want to see God upside down.”

I asked if I could meet Musa.

“Just don’t see him alone and don’t carry valuables.”

Salar wasn’t available to accompany me, so I asked an Assyrian Christian named Karam, who is originally from Qaraqosh and now lives as a refugee in Erbil. Qaraqosh is a village thirty minutes outside Mosul and home to the country’s ancient Christian population. When I told Karam about Musa, he said, “Not that guy. I know that guy.” Karam’s family had been neighbors with Musa’s father, who had recently passed away. “I remember Anes,” Karam said. “He used to ride his bike backwards through the streets. Before ISIS came, he drove around and told them where everybody lived. He gave them names.” On August 6, 2014, tens of thousands of Christians fled Qaraqosh at the behest of ISIS. But Musa didn’t run, maybe because he was too stoned or he just didn’t care. No one really knows. Some elderly and sick people decided to stay, too.

We met Musa near the glowing Virgin Mary statue that marked the entrance to Ainkawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil filled with bars and women with long loose hair and tight skinny jeans. It was nearing midnight. The streets were mostly empty but for a few men smoking cigarettes. A cross-eyed man walked by the Virgin Mary. “That’s him,” Karam said. He wore soiled jeans and a white tennis visor and lugged a heavy backpack like a schoolboy. He stooped to cough and spit mucus.

We called him over. He had deep creased cheeks and muddied skin.

I shook his hand. “I was really hoping you were dead,” Musa said. I had rescheduled twice because I’d been sick with fever. “I hoped you had been hit by a semitruck.” Musa shook his head and then threw his hands in the air. He started telling me a story about being locked inside a Porta Potty while the police threw rocks at him. “Fuckers,” he said.

I did not believe Matti when he told me Musa was too annoying for ISIS. But now it was clear: Musa was perceived as the village madman, the class clown, a stray dog. Not even worth killing or putting in an execution video. In his words, there was hate, of course—there were signs of mental illness—but there was also a sense of humiliation.

We walked to a café across from a sidewalk blackened by a 2012 suicide attack on the US consulate. Musa ordered a cappuccino. He slipped off his shoes and rubbed his socks. “I’m sorry about my feet,” he said. He picked up a jar of sugar. It was the size of a soda can, and he poured the sugar until it made a mountain in his cup. He stirred it and then ate some of the sugar with a spoon. I asked him about his escape from ISIS.

In August of 2014, Musa woke up at three in the morning covered in sweat. The power was out, and there was no air conditioning. He climbed to the roof to sleep. He slept for a couple hours and woke up to noise. The militants were coming up the road with their black flags waving. Musa walked downstairs and into the street. ISIS was surprised to see him. They asked what he was still doing in the city when they had warned everyone to leave. “I like it here,” he said. They took his money. They took his car, apparently a BMW. They made him convert to Islam. One day he was taking a walk and got lost. He found two thousand jelly cans under the sun. He looked closely and saw wires. Oh, this is an IED, he said.

“Sorry about my feet—you see my feet are fucked up. What was I trying to say? Oh, how come the coalition forces who come around Mosul, how come they didn’t see these two thousand jelly cans by the cemetery. I don’t want ISIS to see me. I threw my cigarette over there, because if they see me they’ll kill me slowly, slowly. Anyway, what was I talking about?”

“ISIS came.”

“Don’t say ISIS,” he said. “Don’t say Daesh. Call them eleven! Don’t say Daesh! Say nine plus two. Daesh in Arabic is eleven.”

Karam shrugged. Musa stared at us. His left eye was still, but his right eye roamed. His mouth was open.

“Eleven came,” I said.

“ISIS came,” he said, “and took me into the streets. ‘What are you doing here?’ they asked. They took my money. The guy who fucked me with the BMW. He’s a pimp. You know what I was doing? I was praying to Holy Mommy. I lost my expensive French bike. But I was not scared because of the explosives. I was scared because they wanted to kill me slowly, slowly. I was taken to jail because—Bad boys. Bad boys. What’cha gonna do? What’cha gonna do when they come for you. I mean,” he said, “fuck you. Anyway, ISIS told me to come to the jungle. And I said, ‘What jungle?’”

I was reminded of a moment in the Quran: “‘Islam began as something strange,’ the Prophet told his companions, ‘and it will return to being something strange as it first began, so glad tidings to the strangers.’ ‘Who are the strangers?’ someone asked. ‘Those who break off from their tribes,’ the Prophet replied.” The strangers are a saved group of Muslims who will fight the infidels until the day of judgment. But Musa was not one of these men.

It was his absence of identity, not the radicalization of it, that frightened me.

After one month, ISIS threw Musa in jail in Mosul. Qaraqosh was a war zone, and they couldn’t have civilians around. They transported him to an ISIS prison in Mosul where he was held for twenty days. The guards beat him. He slept in a sunless room with thirty other men. Meals arrived through a slot in the door, and if you weren’t there when it arrived, the food crashed to the floor. “Baghdad taxi-driver motherfucker. He was asshole motherfucker. He said ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck your mother.’ I don’t know where the fuck he got whiskey. We were in jail with some ladies, and I don’t have to talk about the ladies.”

He converted to Islam in jail to save his life and recited the shahada for the guards. But still they beat him. “I was hit with a cable eighty times but it was more like eight hundred because Daesh don’t know how to count. Everyday they beat me because they hated me.” Then the guards chopped off the head of a prisoner, and when it was over, they put an M16 close to Musa’s ear. The guard told him he wouldn’t die by this bullet because it was too expensive (1,500 dinars, or about $1.28) and he wasn’t worth it. He pointed at the dead man. “I’ve got to chop your head off like Umar Abdul,” he said. They came at him with a sword like a half circle. Just a cough and blood would come out. Musa explained what he told the guard: “You don’t scare me, man. You don’t even scare my fucking dog. At least I won’t have to look at dick-fucking faces like you.”

Then they beat him again. In the mornings he prayed.

“Mental. Sick. Not only ISIS. All the fuckers. They fuck all my friends. You know what I mean, jelly bean? They were dirty fucking people who take a shower every leap year.”

I laughed, and Musa said, “Why you laughing? You think I’m crazy? Why are you taking notes if you think I’m crazy? Liar liar pussy on fire.”

One day the guards asked if anyone knew German. Musa said he knew German, Arabic, Kurdish, English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. He was released immediately and hired by the Sharia court to translate divorce cases between foreign fighters and their jihadi brides. For the first case, he translated on the behalf of an American woman and a German man. Musa said, “His wife, I mean, his bitch, she says: I want to stay away from him because he is an animal.” Musa paused. “God bless you and get the fuck out of here.”

ISIS gave him an apartment in Mosul, but he did not follow the rules, and there were many rules. There were the loudspeaker announcements and mosque sermons. There were rules about cigarettes and alcohol and women. Women weren’t allowed to work unless they were nurses. There were mannequins without exposed skin. There were walls around homes so the women could not be seen. There were the hisba committees, the feared enforcers of ISIS regulations, who wandered the streets to look for behavior deemed unacceptable. One night, like many nights, Musa drank alcohol alone in his apartment and threw the bottle out the window. Someone started yelling, and when Musa looked outside, a man with a huge beard like Ayatollah Khomeini was staring back at him through the window. The man kicked open the door and beat Musa with telephone cables. On another day Musa wanted to smoke cigarettes. It’s not legal to smoke in the caliphate, but he took his chances. He put two cigarettes under his socks and walked down the street to smoke under a bridge. On the way out, he saw a man stopped by the moral police for smoking. The police chopped the man’s fingers and dropped them in boiling falafel oil. Musa went and bought a kilo of kebab. He ate the kebab and then went under the bridge to smoke two cigarettes.

At the Sharia courts, Musa wouldn’t cooperate. He swore in the courtroom. He did not do his job well. He did not listen to the judge. ISIS had had enough of him and arranged for him to be dropped off outside the caliphate. Musa gathered his savings of thirty thousand dinars and took a taxi to the crossing between Kurdistan and Islamic State territory south of Kirkuk. He had spent exactly one hundred days in the caliphate. He was thinking of leaving for Tehran, or maybe heading back to Syria. When I asked how he ended up in Erbil, instead of Kirkuk, he said he had wanted to be here since he entered Iraq, but Matti wouldn’t let him leave. “Then he told me to pack my bags and get out,” he said.

Musa paused and took a sip of his cappuccino. “Don’t fuck with me,” he said. “Don’t fuck with the best. You are talking to John Paul II, man. Just leave me alone and fuck off. That’s why they didn’t chop off my head! By the way, I only eat one kebab a day. You should give me at least $50,000, and I’ll pay you later, alligator. My dad calls me sick. He said you are good boy when you sleep, but then one night you kicked your brother.”

“Did someone buy you from Daesh?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They just left me.”

“Do you have a family?”

“I was in Italy once,” he said, “and I met my ex-fiancé, and my baby was born in 1985. Let’s change the subject. Goddamn super tramp. Super bitch. Super slut. Can I borrow ten dollars?” He rubbed his socked feet. “I speak eight languages. Man, I fucked up.” He looked behind him. In this war, he belonged to no one, and with no end to the war in sight, what could be worse than that?

“Anyway, thank you for the cappuccino. I will break your head, inshallah. That is my story. Now I’m tired and leave me alone.”


***This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Jennifer Percy

Jennifer Percy is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and author of Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier's Return from War, which was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her writing has been published in Harper’s, Esquire, The New Republic, the New York Times, and elsewhere.

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