“When a war starts, the first victim is the truth”: In conversation with Omar Mohammed, the ‘Mosul Eye’
Scoffed and silenced for asking too many questions as a child under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, historian Omar Mohammed often found himself waiting to be an adult, questions boiling inside of him. With music being banned, infrastructure bombed and questions silenced, Omar faced the harsh reality of his beloved city of Mosul being torn up right before his eyes. In June 2014, days after the invasion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), ‘Mosul Eye’ was born. The blog, detailing the happenings and destruction in the city, is celebrated as one of the few reliable sources of the truth in Mosul. Keeping his city above all, the undercover historian spent years collecting, verifying, segregating and sharing information to the outside world.
In his first address to India, the journey and life of MosulEye was brought to the students of Manipal in the School of Communication’s annual media event ‘Article-19′. The Manipal Journal had the chance to interview Omar on the ideals behind his blog, and his take on various other issues.
What was your inspiration behind naming the blog ‘MosulEye’?
Why I chose to name my page MosulEye is because I’ve always believed in the power and importance of observation. It was part of the fight against ISIS, their injustice and their narrative, them connecting the name of the city to terrorism and me wanting to keep the city’s name free of terrorism. So today, people will no longer only associate Mosul to terrorism but to other things like music, art, agriculture, architecture, exhibitions, and normal life. If you were to put the name MosulEye on Google, you will find the true narrative of the city and not that of the ISIS.
Were you ever questioned regarding the accuracy of the details mentioned in your blogs or pages? How did you react to journalists/agencies contacting you from outside?
During those times, the contact from the outside was on a very different level. In the beginning, it was just written interviews. I was scared to give a recorded interview. When they contacted me, I asked them to send questions to an email, and I would send them back with the answers to the journalists. I would also often post these answers in the MosulEye blog or Facebook and Twitter. I sometimes refused to communicate with certain journalists if I felt they were misusing information or using MosulEye to justify their point of view in any way. But I spoke to many through email, and later when I felt a bit safer I talked to a few on the phone changing my voice. Finally, after being able to reveal my identity, I opened up to live interviews on the T.V. or even face to face interviews.
At any point in your years undercover, gathering information and socialising with ISIS on the streets of Mosul, did you feel their views to be justified in any way?
This is a problematic question. What the ISIS was doing was in no way justified but what they did try to do very extensively was to justify their actions and doings in the city, by weaponising history, and threatening people who they accused to be spies.
The only justified action was the fear of the people who couldn’t process it all or take in what was happening. ISIS mentally controlled the people by subjecting them to fear, so truly, even if somebody tried to justify their views, you wouldn’t take it knowing that they’re saying it out of fear.
February 3, 2019 marked the 4th anniversary of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh being burnt alive by ISIS. For your work as MosulEye, you’ve received threats from terrorists promising you a death more gruesome than that of the pilot. What was the situation like at the time?
I have some kind of connection to what happened to the pilot, because ISIS threatened me from time to time saying they would kill me in a way that is still undiscovered, and that I’d end up begging for a death similar to that of the Jordanian pilot. This kind of brutality that they used was a part of their propaganda to spread fear amongst the people in times of war. I’m not sure if there’s anyone who could do such a thing to a human as done by ISIS. Just like in the case with the Nazis, they were trying to show the world and the people under their rule that the punishment of trying to do anything against them will result in an unimaginable fate.
According to the latest edition of the World Press Freedom Report, the Middle-East is considered the worst region for journalists to work in. Despite the looming threats and risk factors, why was it so important for you to stick to unbiased reportage?
When a war starts, the first victim is the truth. It is so difficult to get the truth out of war, and it is equally difficult to be objective. That is why I repeat, I am not a journalist, I am a historian. When you are a historian, you write all the events despite its subject or relation to you, all at once, seeking nothing but the truth. History is truly nothing about the past or the present, but it is about tomorrow.
People in the next few years will have lots of questions about ISIS itself, them taking control over other countries, with weapons and military equipment, painting a very dangerous narrative. The fight between me and the ISIS was over this very narrative. Who’s controlling the narrative now? One can’t control the narrative just being a journalist. Like in this case, when the ISIS came they brought in their own narrative saying it is only the Islamic State ruling the country and quoting the existence of only one community with no diversity, but the true narrative was one of rich diversity and coexistence which was completely unacceptable by the ISIS.
Having presumably met these objectives of countering ISIS’ narratives, what is the purpose of your blog today?
The mission of MosulEye has evolved, now focusing on the rebuilding of the city in different directions, firstly the infrastructure and then by advocating Mosul as an international community.
At the same time, we are focusing on the tangible and intangible reconstructions in Mosul, and the cultural, academic and artistic aspects. We are working hard to rebuild and reclaim the cosmopolitan identity of Mosul with its diversity and protect it just like the times before.
For example, Mosul had amazing economic connections with India, the UK, and other European countries. You could find a businessman in Mosul having an office in Mumbai. We are now trying to rebuild the connection by recreating this narrative, by building back the city and advocating Mosul internationally.
You escaped Mosul toward the end of 2015, due to the increasing threats to you and your family and haven’t been back since. Do you miss home? Are you looking forward to returning anytime soon?
I miss Mosul every day, every single moment. I am doing whatever I can in my power, to make my home better. All I do is dedicated to my city. I’ve always said: “keep your city just as your nation”, but the problem and the irony is that despite all I’m doing, I’m unable to return home. I have a lot of dreams, some of which have already come true, for example: Mosul is now a part of an international network, a part of the Boston Marathon and is now represented in different countries through MosulEye. I also bring music to the city, but I can’t be there myself. Home is where I belong. I even give myself this acronym of ‘Seat 37’ on a train, the number of my district. In this seat, I am on a journey, and I will always move till I find my final peace which is in Mosul.
A recent podcast by New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi, titled ‘Caliphate’, described the rule of the Islamic State during their reign in Iraq and Syria. You’ve previously had issues with a report relating to her collection of what can now be seen as historical documents relating to their reign. What do you have to say about the entire situation?
I didn’t agree with the report and I despised the report, and how it was published because it too is a part of how international journalists try to impose certain understandings and perspectives of Mosul and the entire situation. It is not enough for an outsider to stay for a day, a week or a month in Mosul even if they know the language, to say that they actually wholly understand the situation there, all with the different aspects of economy, politics, religion, society, history etc. in a blurry combination.
So when a journalist says that the people of Mosul supported or joined the ISIS because they liked the ISIS it is not completely true. Not knowing the underlining reasons is sad, just like in the case of the tribes in the rural areas in Iraq joining the ISIS because of their poor economic reasons in the last decade. Understanding only one part of the real problem is not enough, and as much as they are right or experienced, a complete judgment is impossible in such a case.
Has Rukmini ever tried to contact you regarding the New York Times’ coverage of ISIS in Mosul?
I admire her work, and I have been in contact with her, but she did not contact me to ask me about this case in particular. She has apparently, as said in her reports, met with some prisoners of the ISIS and spoken to the local people, but we haven’t communicated to write a report. But we do discuss certain topics.
President Donald Trump recently announced that U.S. troops would be pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan as well, stating that ISIS is defeated. From your experience of what the West has done in Iraq, what is your reaction to this?
I was indeed very upset when Trump said this. With the West in Iraq, the biggest mistake was in 2003 itself when they came to Iraq, but it only worsened the terrorism. The next big mistake was in 2011 when they withdrew from Iraq, following which terrorism became a major problem with the ISIS. Them withdrawing from Syria similarly, is just giving the ISIS a chance to grow with such power again. One can not just come and then decide to leave during chaos.
Featured Image Courtesy: Ekta Sinha
Edited by: Takshak Pai