Jess Wanless
Sep 28, 2017 · 4 min read

Life under ISIS in western Anbar

In the past year, ISIS has been driven out of Mosul and lost swathes of territory across Iraq. The armed group has yet to be fully defeated in Iraq but the battle to retake the final two areas under ISIS’ rule has finally begun.

I recently spoke with Hamed*, who is from a town called Ana. He’s one of the more than 50,000 people who have risked their lives to flee ISIS-held western Anbar province since January. He shares his story:

“Life in Ana was very hard, and it became harder and harder each day. In the last few months, we couldn’t even reach the main door of our house because ISIS was watching us. They started to accuse people of anything they could think of as revenge because they were suffering from air strikes.

One day I was out and heard air strikes close by to my house. I rushed home to look for my family — I couldn’t find them inside our house. But I couldn’t ask anyone where they were because no one would answer.

Everyone was afraid of everyone.

When the air strikes finished I finally found my family in my neighbor’s house. We left to go home, and ISIS showed up and asked us what we were doing outside our house. They questioned us, and questioned us, and questioned us. We were terrified.

Even after the air strike, we could not escape Ana because ISIS forbid anyone to leave.

Hamed’s mother, children and nephews sit outside their new home in Ramadi, in a building that was partially damaged during the battle for the city. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

My mum is sick with diabetes and she needs insulin injections. In Ana, it was almost impossible for us to get the injections for her. They need to be transported cold. Even when we did manage to find them, most of the time they were already expired; you can only keep the insulin for a short period of time.

Her health became a lot worse. The psychological impact of everything that has happened to us also took its toll.

You can only imagine what it is like to hear air strikes on a daily basis — a lot of bombs, a lot of sounds you don’t want to hear. When we heard the aircrafts, that was when the horror really began.

You can only imagine what it is like to hear air strikes on a daily basis.

When the children heard the planes, they put their hands over their ears. Every night they slept in fear with their hands over their ears. Even today when they hear a strange noise or a car in the street they run to me, worried about what is happening.

The children spent more than a year without ever getting out of the house. We were afraid to let them leave because ISIS would catch them and try to get information out of them. They would ask, “Does your father call someone in Baghdad? Does he call someone outside? Does he have a mobile?”

Charges were everywhere. Executions everywhere. To be honest I reached the point when I couldn’t even trust my brother.

No one had any jobs or cash under ISIS. Before ISIS my brother was a daily laborer; he worked in the ceramic works. I was a daily laborer building water pipes. After ISIS came everything stopped. Our wives saved some money. We sold our clothes and jewelry. I borrowed some money from my uncle. We gathered all this money together and we paid the smugglers to get us out.

We finally decided we had to flee Ana because heavy bombing took place, and air strikes hit just 20 meters from our house. ISIS brought their anti-air-strike guns and put them between houses. ISIS doesn’t bring their weapons to open areas. When the planes saw them, they just bombed them. ISIS put their guns between houses to use us as human shields.

ISIS put their guns between houses to use us as human shields.

We could not speak to ISIS. We could not say, “Don’t do this.” If we did we would be kidnapped or killed.”

A ruined house in Ramadi. Across Iraq countless homes have been damaged in the fight to rid the country of ISIS. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

Hamed and his family escaped in the middle of the night to Ramadi, a city in central Iraq which was retaken from ISIS last year. They left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and their IDs.

“We felt like we were going to nowhere — we were not expecting to survive. So many families were caught by ISIS or killed by snipers.”

In Ramadi, the International Rescue Committee provided cash relief to help Hamed provide for his family and to pay rent.

“With the cash the IRC gave us we bought medication for my diabetic mother,” Hamed said. “We also bought other things we needed — for my children, for rent, for food. I can spend the money according to what I need. I can use it on to what is important for me.”

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive, recover and reclaim control of their future. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC has works in over 40 countries and in 28 resettlement offices across the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.

Find more refugee voices in the IRC’s Uprooted publication on Medium.

Follow the IRC on Twitter and Facebook and Medium

*Name changed to protect identity


Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers of the refugee crisis.

Jess Wanless

Written by

Emergency communications for @theIRC in Iraq — responding to Mosul. All views my own.



Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers of the refugee crisis.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade