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Cities of refuge
8 min read

Darkness over Mosul – about journalism and ISIS in Iraq

For Iraqi journalist and writer Nawzat Shamdin, the meaning of the word home has come to be redefined during the two years he has lived in Skien, Norway. For over a decade, through his work as a journalist, Shamdin has drawn attention to atrocities committed by militias in Iraq, and in particular by ISIS. Following several attempts on his life by ISIS supporters, he was forced to leave his hometown of Mosul, which has been controlled by ISIS since 2014 – and has subsequently, through ICORN, become a refuge writer in Skien. Journalist Afrah Nasser has interviewed him for PEN/Opp.

Credits Text: Afrah Nasser March 10 2016

The meaning of home is being reinterpreted in the eyes of Iraqi journalist and novelist, Nawzat Shamdin as he has been embracing his new city, Skien in Norway over the past two years. For more than a decade, Shamdin’s journalistic work has shown light on the atrocities committed by several militia groups in Iraq, and mainly, by the Islamic State (IS). Having been receiving dozens of death threats and being the target of many assassination attempts by IS members, Shamdin was compelled to leave his hometown, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul – seized by IS since 2014 – and join Norway’s ICORN (March, 2014) where writers and artists fearing for their life are offered a refuge.

With a bitter but resilient voice, he tells me that he will never go home again even if he visits the country in the future. Simply, because he is certain that everything he used to recognize would definitely decay as Mosul is ravaged by the IS group’s violence.

On one of the dark Swedish days of February, I received an email from PEN/Opp asking me if I would be interested in interviewing Shamdin who has dedicated his writings in exposing ISIS’s atrocities, and if I would like to write a piece about his work? Despite the grim subject and the melanchous Swedish weather, I felt so excited and unhesitantly accepted the offer. The reason for me to accept the offer was that I have a great admiration for bravery in the face of danger and pain.

Iraq has gone through a series of brutal wars over the past decades, and the latest chain of violence in the country is represented in the rise of the IS in Mosul. Covering Mosul is not an easy task. Any information coming out of Mosul, or what IS refers to as its territory, is under a tremendous monopoly by the group. It’s been almost impossible to get a real picture and verified information from Mosul. If any reporter dared to tell an alternative story to IS’ narrative, the group’s fighters will kidnap or kill those who dared. Nonetheless, journalists have taken the responsibility to enlighten the world and play the role of watchdogs. That, of course, comes with a heavy price. In 2015 alone, around 71 journalists were killed in Iraq, making it one of the deadliest countries for journalists. Shamdin could have been one of those numbers, but, fortunately, destiny had another fate for him.

Journalism as a scary profession
Shamdin, who's a lawyer by education, a journalist by occupation and a novelist by lifelong passion for writing, describes how his journalism practice looked like in Iraq before he moved to Norway, “by 2014, when I left Iraq, I have lost more than 50 colleagues working in media, as they were systematically targeted and killed in a daylight and under the eye of the police, by IS members. No protection was given to media workers because the authority was under the grip of IS. Hence, I tried to be accustomed with the never-ending death threats I used to get and the idea that I could be next.”

Journalism under the IS rule is a scary profession. Journalists of all political spectrum have been attacked, detained, threatened and/or killed by IS members. The group has created a wanted-list for journalists and media workers in the city, considering any non-IS affiliated reporter on the activities of the group in Mosul as a target. “When IS captures one of the journalists named in their wanted-list and kills him, they proudly announce killing him, so others be frightened,” explains Shamdin, “accordingly, 99% of journalists have been working under fake names, including myself at one point.” Depending on how risky is the topic in his reports, Shamdin used sometimes to report under a fake name, he points out, “when I made a report about sectarian conflicts in Iraq and who fuels and benefits from them, I had to have a fake name and fake names for my sources; I needed to protect them. Other than that, I used to report with my real name.”

Shamdin has worked with the Ninevah Daily (editor 1995-2003), the dailies Wadi Al-Rafidayn (editorial 2003-2005), the Mustakbal al Iraqi, and the Baghdad-based daily Al Mada (2005-2012 as Director of the Ninevah office). Since 2010 he has worked as editor-in-chief for the cultural journal Thaqafat. He has also worked for the Iraqiyoun daily, the Aleqtissadiya weekly as well as being an occasional correspondent for the online journal MICT Niqash.

Reporting under his real name has brought his life at great risks. Among the dozens of assassination attempts Shamdin experienced, he recalls how three gun bullets missed him while he was driving his car. In another incident he recalls how he miraculously was saved from a close assassination attempt by the smoke of a near car bomb at the place. “We, journalists were very aware of the terrifying scale of targeting journalists. Each of us understood that executing him or her was going to happen any day and anytime,” says Shamdin, “I had to be extra careful. Quite often, I used to sleep over at my office. It was dangerous to be out at nights. Perhaps being this cautious is what saved my life.”

Writing is my life
Ever since IS was in the process of being established in the 2000s, Shamdin has produced hundreds of reports focusing on the corruption and the violations committed by the group. One of the central in-depth reports he made was in 2012, published in two parts, titled, Everybody Knows the Secret: Pay the Islamic State or You Will Be Killed. “This is one of the reports that irritated the group the most,” explains Shamdin, “it annoyed them also that I knew who these guys were and what did they want exactly, and what were their plans.” Shamdin has reported on how different groups have different agendas to the petrol and oil wealth in Iraq, uncovering people on power’s political exploitation.

Besides these political reports, his critical reports on the tragic humanitarian situation and the impact of the violence in the city was what impacted Shamdin the most. For example, children’s health condition was on top of Shamdin’s reporting. “Reporting on the worsening health and medical services for the majority of the children in the city under the rule of IS used to break my heart. I have written hundreds of reports but nothing felt as painful as much as reporting on those dying children who because of the built-up conflicts in the country were not able to receive the medicine they need as they were dying slowly,” with a sad voice explains Shamdin.

Being the diligent reporter he is, Shamdin has been mending his heart in Norway along with his wife and kids, and insists on remaining one of the voices about his hometown, Mosul through his writings. I ask him about how he does see his new refuge in Norway? He replies, “I used to be a journalist, novelist and lawyer, but today I am a refugee.” He pauses for a while and continues, “No, actually, that’s not true. In practice, I am not a refugee. I still report for Niqash about the developments in Mosul. I still write, train journalists, and I am a tireless observer of the political developments in Iraq and the Middle East region. I am always told that it seems that I did not migrate; it’s just that my body is in Norway but my mind is still in Iraq.”

Listening to all the horrific experiences Shamdin had to go through, I wondered how have they impacted him emotionally? He frankly answers that there is a secret that only his wife knows about, which he hides from his kids; that is, no week passes by without him waking up at night by nightmares, after dreaming about all the threats he used to receive. Despite all the trouble writing has brought to Shamdin, he believes that writing is his eternal passion. He says “writing is my life. Sometimes I ask myself: what would I have done without writing? If I may go back on time, I would have also chosen to write about Mosul; today I don’t regret anything that my writings have made me go through.”

Over the past two years, ICORN helped Shamdin to publish four books. Today, he’s writing a novel about the yazidi girls’ plight in Iraq and planned to be published in the near future. “Today, I write freely, without a police officer knocking on my door,” concludes Shamdin.

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