Khazer Camp in northern Iraq's desert throbs with horror stories — unthinkable tales of brutality and loss. When I reported there last winter, one older Iraqi woman told me to be sure to leave before dusk fell.
"The camp is dangerous?" I asked.
"No," she said, staring blankly at me. "Because at night, the ghosts of our old lives will come, and no one can stand that heartbreak."
On July 10, Iraq's Prime Minister declared "total victory" in Mosul and congratulated his troops on liberating the city from the so-called Islamic State.
Last October, Iraqi forces launched a U.S.-backed offensive to reclaim Mosul, a once multiethnic cradle of cultures and religions. Back in 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had revealed himself to the world in the ancient city, declaring a "caliphate" that extended to parts of neighboring Syria (there have been recent reports that al-Baghdadi was killed, though they are not confirmed by the Pentagon).
The battle for Mosul has killed thousands of civilians and displaced almost 100,000 people. While the offensive is in its final days, the United Nations says there is no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis. Several Iraqis I've spoken to say there is simply nothing to return to.
At Khazer, 45 miles from Mosul, and other camps, I spoke to dozens of women who had lived under siege for the past two and a half years. Their accounts provide a window into one of the most brutal chapters in modern history.
The first thing sixteen-year-old Ghufran did when she moved to Khazer was paint her nails.
When ISIS took control of her neighborhood, cosmetics were thrown into the trash, along with any colorful clothing. Gone was her favorite pink headscarf lined with purple gems. Out went a pink lip gloss she had used her birthday money to purchase, as well as a floral dress her friend had brought from Europe. She and other women, even little girls, were forced to wear black niqabs, an Islamic face veil that leaves all but a slit for the eyes. They were also forced to wear gloves.
"There was no color anywhere," says Ghufran, sitting in a small tent with her parents and siblings. It's a rainy day, and drops of water come through the top of the tent and run down all our faces. "Even the sun seemed black on most days."
Ghufran comes from a small village outside Nimrud, twenty miles south of Mosul. It's an ancient city — once the capital of the Assyrian empire, she explains with pride. She used to spend her childhood roaming the ancient citadel, packed with world-renowned palaces, tombs, and one of the tallest surviving structures from the ancient world.
But a month after ISIS captured Nimrud in 2014, it published a video showing militants destroying much of the citadel, smashing antiquities with sledgehammers and blowing up what little remained.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) described the destruction of Nimrud as a "war crime," saying ISIS was "clearly determined to wipe out all traces of the history of Iraq's people."
And all traces of a vibrant childhood. Two months into the siege, Ghufran stopped going to school. The Islamic State revamped the curriculum, turning classrooms into militaristic training grounds.
"The boys had it worse than the girls," she says, looking at her teenage brother for confirmation. He refused to speak for hours, his emotions still underground. "They were taught to load machine guns and make grenades. But even the girls were encouraged to join the Al-Khanssaa Brigade [the women's wing of ISIS] and do favors for them."
During the siege, Ghufran says two of her best friends joined Al-Khanssaa out of fear. One was married off to a foreign fighter almost immediately. They haven't spoken since.
Low-level fear turned to terror when two of her beloved teachers disappeared from their homes. Rumor has it they were executed for refusing to adopt ISIS's new curriculum. Ghufran's father, who was forced to accompany her outside the home (women were not allowed in public without a male chaperone), was whipped one Saturday morning in front of her eyes for smoking.
In the first week of the siege, the family's favorite stretch of the city, once a rambling row of picnic tables and flowers, became littered with photos of executed people as a warning: this is what happens if you don't obey.
She says she still sees those mutilated faces in her dreams, most with their mouths still open, their screams frozen in time.
"She had the best mathematics score in her entire class," Ghufran's father interrupts her gruesome recollection. "She even beat the boys. She was planning to take the university entrance exam, and we knew she'd be one of the first to go to college, but then ISIS came."
Ghufran looks down and applies another coat of red nail polish.
It was a little after midnight when Asala's family took a small fishing boat across the Tigris River and fled two and a half years of prison.
"When they banned my favorite soap opera and took all our satellites, that's when I said 'Enough,'" the 27-year-old jokes. Her laughter briefly lightens the mood of her dank tent, packed with her family of eight, but no one else really laughs.
The first month ISIS came, Asala said her neighborhood was eerily quiet, like a ghost town. Fighters told her family that they were there to help — to liberate them from years of oppression under the Iraqi government. Asala's family had vaguely heard about ISIS from news in Syria, and they were suspicious. Still, they hung an ISIS black flag on their door when asked, just like everyone else in the town. Not doing so would have amounted to treason. And in a matter of days, they would soon find out what happens to those who dissent.
"We lost ourselves back in Mosul … the older people, the children, all of us are gone."
"Mama! Men are hanging in the squares!" Asala's seven-year-old son ran into the house screaming one day after school. She thought he was making it up and told him to take a nap. The next day, when her husband accompanied her to the market, she discovered that her son had been telling the truth.
"You can never forget such an ugly sight," she says. "I'm forever damaged. I wanted to examine their faces to see if I knew any of them, but I just started crying under my black costume."
Soon, her father, who owned a smoke shop, was sent to prison for five months. Smoking was outlawed, and he was caught selling some cigarettes on the black market to pay rent. He still has a copy of his arrest warrant. He passes it to me as if to prove he had lived in a dystopian parallel universe. On it, ISIS had written out dates using the Islamic calendar.
"I kept it in case anyone tries to forget what they put us through," he says. "The world can't forget."
Asala's husband was also sent to prison for a month for "not controlling" her. Asala received two warnings from the police for shopping in the markets without her gloves. The third time, they dragged her husband out of the shop and lashed him across the back 50 times. Children nearby didn't even stop to watch; such sights became commonplace.
When her husband challenged the police, they threw him in jail for two weeks. Unlike Asala's father, her husband refuses to talk about his time in prison. It's too painful, Asala says. One of her uncles later insinuated that he may have been sexually assaulted.
"We lost ourselves back in Mosul … the older people, the children, all of us are gone," Asala says, before making rice on a small fire near a row of five latrines shared by hundreds. "We are still lost."
Zeinab's first nervous breakdown happened two weeks after ISIS took control of her neighborhood. She had always suffered from anxiety, but when she could no longer go outside without her husband, she "went crazy."
"I just saw black … it was everywhere. I felt trapped like a bird in a cage," she says, twirling her hair anxiously. "I couldn't go outside without my husband, who worked long hours. I couldn't be a person."
ISIS plundered her neighborhood's health clinics and banned most pharmaceuticals. But a family friend had a supply of generic Prozac that she began taking. The antidepressant pills didn't so much relieve the anxiety as they did numb her. But that's exactly what she needed.
"I didn't want to feel anything. There was death, and darkness, and I wanted to feel none of it," she says.
Zeinab says she can summarize two and a half years with two verbs: sitting and waiting. Her three sons stopped going to school as soon as they were taught how to load a gun. Restless at home, they started acting out and would wet their beds from night terrors. Her husband, a prominent electrician, was forced to work with ISIS. When they tasked him with constructing tunnels, he said he would quit, refusing to be complicit in their guerilla warfare. In turn, they held him for one week in a dark room with little food and water and threatened to take his sons. So off to work he went, digging one deep tunnel after another.
When the Iraqi offensive began, Zeinab and her family were relieved, hoping ISIS would be driven out and normalcy would return. But since they had been cut off from the news for two and half years, they were uncertain what awaited them outside. One day, their neighbor's house was hit by a mortar shell, and Zeinab soon after found the barely recognizable body of a little girl she used to babysit. She knew they had to escape.
"Sometimes it's like we left one prison for another," she says, looking off into a horizon dotted with countless tents. At Khazer, most refugees cannot easily leave the camp and reenter because of security concerns. "But what am I saying? Where would we even go? Where is there for us to go?"
She swallows one of her pills along with some tea and turns on a small Sony boom box from the '80s. Mariah Carey's "Hero" comes screeching in, and she smiles.