'Isil hanged me from the ceiling by a pair of handcuffs for a month to try to break me', escapee says
The Marwan family waited until their Islamic State captors were at the mosque for Friday prayers before attempting their escape.
Last weekend, the eve of Ramadan, was the first time the jihadists had all attended and the family knew it could be their only opportunity for a while.
Amira Marwan, 34, grabbed her children and ran for 12 miles through the barren desert road out, which Isil had booby trapped with mines.
“I thought, we can sit here and die slowly or we can at least try to live,” she told the Telegraph, asking not to use her real name.
Amira, her son and two young daughters, had been living under Isil rule for nearly two years in the village of Nasr, 50 miles south of Mosul in northern Iraq. The fighters had told the widow if she ever tried to leave they would marry her off to one of their own.
She knew it was not an idle threat; it had happened to some of her friends, and much worse had been done to several of the others.
Her family was picked up last Saturday by volunteers from the Debaga refugee camp in Makhmour, who said they have seen hundreds more flee as the Kurdish Peshmerga forces begin their offensive to push Isil back towards the heart of their caliphate in Mosul.
The first thing she did was rip off her black niqab - the face-covering veil Isil made the women wear - and put on the most colourful jewellery she owned.
“The past few years had been tougher than you can ever imagine,” she said from a tent inside the crowded camp.
It was hard for her to be precise about the timings. She said Isil had made the residents switch to the Islamic calendar and had banned all mobile phones and use of the internet.
She had not been allowed out the house without being escorted by a man. “I told Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Isil), my husband is dead and you killed my brother, who do I have left?” she said.
The first year had been bad but the second was brutal.
“Daesh got stricter and stricter as they began to worry we would rebel - burning people alive in the public square and cutting people’s throats who tried to leave,” she said. “At the end the only food we had was beans, which we would cook up with leaves from the trees.”
Several of the men at Debaga camp told the Telegraph they had been policemen or soldiers before Isil took their village. The jihadists saw them as traitors and as such they were treated much worse than the civilians.
Their names were put on lists, which meant they were forbidden from working or from travelling outside the village, even to other areas in the so-called caliphate such as Mosul.
Ahmed Ibrahim made a bit of money by selling the little gold he owned and from borrowing small amounts from a friend, but still went for days without food.
He showed us his wrists, which were purple in colour and marked with deep scars. He said he had been hanged for a month from the ceiling of an Isil prison by a pair of handcuffs.
During that time they would blindfold him and put him through mock executions, holding an unloaded gun to his head and pulling the trigger.
“They wanted to deprive us of everything so that we would break and decide to join them,” he said. “They never succeeded with us, but they did with others.”
Isil seized on anti-government feeling in Iraq’s second most populous city of Mosul and its predominantly Arab Sunni neighbourhoods like Ahmed’s.
With decisions about Iraq’s future being made by the Shia politicians in Baghdad, many Sunnis felt as though they had little stake in their own country.
Demonstrations had been taking place against the sectarian policies of the then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. The latter responded with violent repression, and thus drove thousands of Sunnis into the arms of the insurgents when they came marching through their city in the summer of 2014.
The men here deny ever having supported Isil, but the cost of admitting so now is high.
The some 800 people that arrived over the weekend are being kept in tents away from the camp’s general population, until they can be questioned and assessed for any links to Islamic State. Those perceived to have sympathies are taken away and arrested.
One 18-year-old boy admitted to us to having worked for them for a short time, but said as an orphan he could not refuse. “They made me carry their rockets and distribute their magazines,” he said. “They used me and gave me nothing in return.” They tried to enrol him in their training programme at the Military Academy for Children in the next town over, but he ran away.
Many of the young boys in the camp were wearing FC Barcelona shirts, but the badges had been ripped off by Isil, who objected to the cross of St George — patron saint of England and Catalonia — on the breast.
“They did not allow us to go to school unless it was to the academy and textbooks were 10,000 dinars (£6), which is more money than most people in the village had,” said Mohammed Fathi Mohammed,13, who escaped from Nasr two days ago.
“The moment I got out I felt like a boy again, like I was seven years old,” Mohammed said as he ate a bowl of rice and tomato sauce - his first proper meal in months.
But Mohammed worries for the 500-odd people left behind in Nasr, including his older sister who was too afraid to leave.
“They are killing relatives of people who manage to get out. I think a lot about what will happen to her.”