The Hell After ISIS
Even as the militant group loses ground in Iraq, many Sunnis say they have no hope for peace. One family’s story shows why.
Falah Sabar heard a knock at the door. It was just before midnight in western Baghdad last April and Falah was already in bed, so he sent his son Wissam to answer. Standing in the doorway was a tall young man in jeans who neither shook Wissam’s hand nor offered a greeting. “We don’t want you here,” he said. “Your family should be gone by noon tomorrow.” For weeks, Wissam, who was 23, had been expecting something like this, as he’d noticed a dark mood taking hold of the neighborhood. He went to get his father, but when they returned, the stranger was gone.
Falah is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair. At 48, he was the patriarch of a brood of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He sat down with Wissam to talk things through. They had been in Baghdad for just three months, but that was long enough for the abiding principle of refugee life to imprint itself on Falah’s psyche: Avoid trouble. When Wissam had managed to find a job at a construction firm, Falah had told him to be courteous, not to mix with strangers, and not to ask too many questions. If providence had granted them a new life in this unfamiliar city, it could snatch that life away just as easily.
Six months earlier, isis had seized their village, in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq, blowing up houses and executing civilians as they fled. A few hundred families had managed to escape and were now scattered across Iraq. Many had wound up in squalid refugee camps near the front lines. The Sabars considered themselves lucky to have landed in Baghdad, a city solidly under the control of anti-isis forces.
But they soon realized that their new home offered little shelter from the conflicts erupting on distant battlefields. As the Islamic State spread its brand of Sunni extremism, their new Shiite neighbors seemed to cast blame on all Sunnis, even those who had lost homes or loved ones to isis. By March, when isis was battling Iraqi forces in Tikrit, 120 miles north, Falah could feel the city changing. In the market, neighbors began to look away from him. At police checkpoints, the family’s IDs were examined more closely. Sometimes, beige pickup trucks with burly Shiite militiamen in the back circled the block. Black banners proclaiming oh hussein!—the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, revered by Shias—began appearing on the storefronts of Sunni-owned businesses. Falah wondered whether the flags were taunts, or had been placed there for protection by the shopkeepers themselves.
A giant billboard stared down on the main street behind their house. Standing two dozen feet tall, it depicted a pair of bearded men in black turbans, one looking sidelong and the other peering ahead with solemn intensity. More than once, Bassim Sabar, 13, had come home asking about it, but Falah couldn’t bring himself to explain that the men were Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, the former and current supreme leaders of Iran. Bassim was too young to grapple with the realities of a neighborhood where they didn’t belong. Falah’s wife, Umm Salam, felt they were “living like strangers in a foreign city.”
When the man in jeans appeared in their doorway, Falah considered calling the police. But he wasn’t sure he could trust them. Around town, Sunnis were being picked up by Shiite militias or the Iraqi army—it was hard to tell who was who—and never seen again, and sometimes policemen could be spotted riding with the militias. Falah took out his phone and dialed Abu Ammar, his cousin and best friend. Abu Ammar was sometimes called “Captain,” owing not only to his days in the old Iraqi army but also to his knack for thinking on his feet when things got stormy. Unlike the rest of the family, he had elected to take refuge in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, about seven hours away. “There’s no law in Baghdad,” he told Falah. “Anything can happen.” His advice: Leave town at once.
Falah agonized. He’d uprooted his family, escaped isis, and paid thousands of dollars to get to Baghdad. He had friends stuck in refugee camps who were desperate to make it to the capital. But Abu Ammar’s conclusion was inescapable: When you can’t trust the authorities, anything can happen. It was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning when Falah told his wife to start packing. They would head north to Abu Ammar’s house at sunrise, telling no one about the visitor who’d shown up at their door. It was a decision he would come to regret for the rest of his life.
Abu Ammar is a slight man, with keen, friendly eyes and a trimmed mustache. He’s quiet but not shy, and in his presence you get the sense that concealing worry comes easily—he speaks of the war the way other people talk about the weather, as a thing to be planned for. I met him last autumn in Kurdistan, where he lived in a three-room cement home set into a mountainside. In the hills around his village, small waterfalls trickled down around cinder-block houses and shacks with corrugated-metal roofs. Work was hard to come by, but Abu Ammar and his family considered themselves fortunate to be there. “We like it here because we are safe,” he said. “isis cannot touch us here, and neither can the government.”
I had been meeting with Sunnis from western Iraq in order to understand how the war against isis looked to members of the largest group still living in isis’s self-declared caliphate. In the prevailing Western view, the Islamic State’s reign of terror is hideously unique—it stands apart from the everyday barbarities of war and dictatorship convulsing the Middle East. According to this theory, the difference between isis’s brutality and the government repression in, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia is one of kind, not degree. This has proved true for certain communities, like the Yazidis of northern Iraq, who have suffered mass slaughter at the hands of isis. But many Sunni families tell a different story. They have found themselves caught between the Islamic State on one side and U.S.-allied forces—the Iraqi government, its army, and Shiite militias—on the other. In this telling, the anti-isis forces are just as violent and oppressive as the entity they’re fighting.
When the Sabars first heard about isis, though, the war had seemed straightforward—it was impossible to imagine that anything could compare to the horror inflicted by the Islamic State. Abu Ammar used a single word to sum up the group: darkness. In exile, he often longed for his village, and the life that had been taken from him. “There’s nothing sweeter than your own house and your own trees,” he said. “It’s your own mini homeland.”
That homeland, in a village called Zweiya (“little corner”), sits at a bend in the Euphrates in eastern Anbar province, not far from the ancient settlement of Hit. In biblical times, the mud-walled city was famous for its bitumen springs. To the Babylonians, the sounds of the tarlike substance gurgling up through the soil were the murmurings of underworld gods. Bitumen still oozes out—as small children, Falah Sabar and Abu Ammar could tell when they were approaching town by the smell of sulphur.
The cousins were born within a year of each other in the late 1960s. They made an odd pair: Falah, a homebody who chose his friends and his words carefully, and Abu Ammar, a macher who reveled in the wheeling and dealing of village life. But their lives were intertwined throughout the tumult of Iraq’s recent history. When Falah was conscripted into the army during the 1980s war with Iran, Abu Ammar enlisted not long after. Falah got married, and Abu Ammar did too—to Falah’s sister. They lived in spacious adobe houses down the street from each other, where Falah raised six children alongside Abu Ammar’s nine. The kids would race through a towering grove of date palms next to Abu Ammar’s house and play soccer in his front yard.
Though the people of Zweiya were Sunni, which meant they belonged to the minority favored by Saddam Hussein, their tribe, the Albu Nimr, had a fraught history with the dictator. In the 1970s, a pair of Albu Nimr generals had been executed following an attempted coup. Then, in 1994, a prominent general from another Anbar tribe was arrested on suspicion of organizing against Saddam. Tribal sheikhs trekked to the palace, pleading for his release, until Saddam finally agreed to return him. In the spring of 1995, the story goes, the general was indeed returned to the sheikhs—in pieces. His tribe rose up in rebellion, and was supported by some Albu Nimr. This insurrection, too, was crushed. After decades of hostilities, climbing the ranks of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party—a crucial source of jobs and patronage—became nearly impossible for anyone in the tribe, and even low-ranking soldiers like Falah and Abu Ammar saw their careers grind to a halt.
The cousins left the army. They’d inherited land near the banks of the Euphrates, where they planted wheat and barley. But United Nations sanctions took a toll on their village. Falah was forced to drive a taxi in Hit in order to provide for his family, and Abu Ammar became a fisherman. When the U.S.‑led coalition invaded in 2003, Falah and Abu Ammar felt hope for the first time in years. “We thought America would make this place into another Tokyo,” Abu Ammar said.
For most people in Anbar, that conviction quickly gave way to anger at American conduct—de-Baathification, night raids, torture, humiliation. But because the Albu Nimr had been excluded from Baathist power, they were more willing to overlook U.S. transgressions. Villages like Zweiya became pro-American bastions in a sea of insurgency.
The U.S. plied Zweiya with reconstruction contracts, enriching Albu Nimr sheikhs at the expense of those from nearby communities. U.S. Special Forces helped create a police force composed largely of Albu Nimr, and then maneuvered to install the tribe’s sheikhs in key posts, such as the mayorship of Hit. For Falah and Abu Ammar, the American support was a windfall. They both joined the new police force, and soon after, their teenage sons did the same. By 2007, Falah’s family was bringing home as much as $1,200 a month, many times his Saddam-era salary. He built a new house next to his childhood home, with enough room for his sons, who were beginning to marry and have children of their own. Around the village, he could see refurbished mosques and rehabilitated irrigation ditches, showpiece counterinsurgency efforts that the U.S. hoped would help win Iraqi hearts and minds.
But by empowering one tribe at the expense of others, the Americans created a deep rift. Townspeople in Hit began to view the Albu Nimr, most of whom lived in outlying villages, as an oppressive ruling class. The police harassed residents or arrested them on flimsy pretexts. If you didn’t have family in the police—meaning you were not Albu Nimr—you could be tortured or forced to pay a bribe. The power imbalance fueled support for al‑Qaeda in Iraq—the forerunner to isis—and other insurgent groups. “Al‑Qaeda was coming to mosques and telling us, ‘Look, one tribe has all the power. This is not your city anymore,’ ” a Hit shopkeeper told me. “Many people accepted this.”
A low-intensity tribal war began to simmer, with al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq) and its tribal allies assassinating dozens of Albu Nimr. Longtime friends and neighbors turned on one another, and the chaos was such that even some Albu Nimr looked back on the brutal Saddam years with longing. “There was security, there was law, there was a system in place,” Abu Ammar said. “After the Americans, there was chaos.”
Many Sunnis in Anbar resented that the U.S. intervention not only benefited certain tribes over others, but also produced a Shia-dominated government. After the Americans withdrew in December 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq and other insurgent groups sought to deepen these divides through a campaign of violence targeting Shiite civilians and progovernment tribal sheikhs. In 2012, nearly 400 car bombs went off nationwide.
The Iraqi state responded with raids and arrests that swept up innocent Sunnis, using as justification the notorious Anti-Terrorism Law, passed in 2005 by the occupation-backed provisional government. Thousands were imprisoned or disappeared on dubious grounds. “Federal police invaded 11 homes in the town of al-Tajji, north of Baghdad, and detained 41 people, including 29 children, overnight in their homes,” a typical Human Rights Watch dispatch stated. “Sources said the police beat the women and tortured them with electric shocks and plastic bags placed over their heads until they began to suffocate.”
In December 2012, Sunni regions exploded in a mass protest movement that erected encampments and blocked highways. Some demonstrators sought reform of the counterterrorism laws, some advocated for a Sunni federal region, and others wanted an outright overthrow of the government. At first, the demonstrations were peaceful. But under harsh government crackdowns, the movement slowly mutated into an armed struggle. The turning point came in April 2013, when security forces opened fire on Sunni protesters in the town of Hawija, killing at least 50 and wounding more than 100.
By the following December, when security forces stormed the Ramadi protest encampment, the transformation into an insurgency was complete. In many towns, Sunni tribes engaged in open warfare with the Iraqi state. isis quickly seized the advantage. “Sunnis of Iraq, a year ago you began peaceful protests,” Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for isis, said in a statement. “We warned you then that nonviolent tactics wouldn’t work with the rawfidh,” a derogatory term for Shias. “We told you that they would force you to fight, and that is what has now happened. In spite of all the scholars and clerics inside and outside Iraq who told you to avoid violence, now you have picked up weapons against your own will.”
For a while, a tenuous alliance of Sunni tribes, isis, and other revolutionary groups held together. But isis began murdering its allies in order to dominate the movement, and at the same time, the Iraqi state increased its repression—in Fallujah, for example, indiscriminate army shelling killed hundreds of civilians. The Sunni alliance crumbled, forcing some sheikhs to flee and others to join isis for protection. It was in this fractured environment—Sunni tribes fighting a Shia-dominated government, and Sunni tribes divided against one another—that isis began swallowing up large parts of western Iraq. Early in 2014, the group brought Fallujah under its control. A few months later it captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. By October, isis was pressing at the gates of Hit.
Falah Sabar and Abu Ammar, who still dutifully showed up to work at the police station, watched in horror as the fields and orchards of their youth slipped away to isis. Although the government was clinging to control of Hit, within city limits popular anger toward the Iraqi security forces—and the Albu Nimr tribe—had begun to boil over. “When we used to patrol, I could see it in their eyes,” Abu Ammar said. “The people looked at us like we were occupiers.”
Early on the morning of October 2, 2014, Falah’s phone began lighting up. He was pulling desk duty during an all-night shift at the police station outside of Zweiya. Reports from Hit, just a few miles away, indicated a tremendous explosion at the city’s southern entrance. For weeks, isis had occupied villages south of town, and fighters would lob mortars at the police base in downtown Hit. But as frantic calls poured in, Falah began to realize that this was not just another shelling. Soon, there were reports of a second deafening explosion, and then gunfire. At 6:30, he got word that seven isis pickup trucks had breached the city’s main checkpoint.
Falah called Abu Ammar, who was at home. He dressed, grabbed his gun, and joined other off-duty policemen who were streaming toward Hit to provide backup. When he arrived, he saw that isis had detonated a suicide bomb in an oil tanker, obliterating the city’s southern defenses. He drove through winding back alleys until he reached the police headquarters, which was already pocked with bullet holes. Gunfire came from rooftops, nearby shops, the electricity plant. Men sped by on motorcycles lobbing grenades. Police began abandoning their checkpoints around town and fleeing to headquarters. Reports of gunshots came from nearly every neighborhood. That was when Abu Ammar had a dark realization: The townspeople were helping isis. “It was like isis had dropped a match on petrol,” he said. “It was an uprising.”
He radioed Falah and said, “This is it. This is the zero hour. They have this carefully planned.” Falah, who was coordinating logistics, called the army for help.
Around 11 in the morning, the first bodies of policemen arrived at the Hit hospital. Albu Nimr sheikhs contacted friends in the Iraqi government for support, but received only vague promises. isis had managed to take control of the highway from Ramadi, choking supply lines. Soon, policemen at the headquarters in Hit began running low on ammunition. From his desk in Zweiya, Falah listened to the radio chatter: desperate cries for ammo, pleas to God for reinforcements. He could no longer get through to Abu Ammar and began to panic. For a while, muffled shouts and screams streamed over the radio. In late afternoon, his walkie-talkie fell silent.
Carefully, amid the fire, Abu Ammar and the others had slipped out the back door of the police headquarters. It was getting dark by the time they gathered on the bank of the Euphrates, at the northern edge of the city. Comrades on the opposite bank, in a town called Hayy al-Bakr, crossed the river in motorboats and ferried them, in twos and threes, to the other side. By midnight, Hit’s police force had abandoned the city and regrouped at the Hayy al-Bakr army base. Sitting in a guest hall amid hundreds of policemen and a few dozen families, Abu Ammar recognized many familiar faces from the Albu Nimr. He could see Hit across the river, the city lights burning against the desert sky, the nighttime air popping with celebratory gunfire.
A hellish three weeks ensued. Five or six times a day, mortars came crashing down around the base in Hayy al-Bakr. isis sniped from rooftops across the river. Supplies dwindled. The Iraqi army provided little backup, leaving the police no choice but to retreat to their home villages. Abu Ammar regrouped with about 150 other Albu Nimr tribesmen in a desert trench outside of Zweiya, where they desperately held off the isis advance. But they knew no reinforcements were coming. “Our commander decided it was time to save our lives,” Abu Ammar recalled.
What happened next is a matter of much dispute. Rumors swirl that a leading Albu Nimr sheikh cut a deal with isis, handing Zweiya over to the militants, and that money may have changed hands. Various Albu Nimr sheikhs accuse one another of profiting from the isis takeover. Some sheikhs may even have pledged allegiance to their conquerors. If true, that would mean a wing of the tribe that had been America’s greatest ally in Anbar joined the Islamic State.
The besieged policemen in Zweiya were given 24 hours to flee to the safety of Haditha, a town 50 miles to the northwest. But they would have to leave the women, children, and elderly behind. Falah wanted to stay with his family and devise a plan to get them to safety. “I’d rather die than leave them,” he said. But there was no telling what isis would do if he were discovered, and Abu Ammar feared that Falah’s presence might put their families in even greater danger. isis fighters were barreling toward Zweiya in pickups, praising God over a loudspeaker. If Falah waited too long, he might never get out. Finally, with a heavy heart, he called Umm Salam from the police station and told her he loved her.
Within hours of the policemen’s retreat, late in the evening of October 22, isis pickups rolled through the main street of Zweiya. Not a shot was fired in resistance.
The next morning, Falah’s uncle Abu Latif answered a knock at his door. He was in his 60s and had remained in the village, with the women and children of the extended family sheltering in his home. Standing at the gate were four men in balaclavas holding Kalashnikovs, accompanied by an informant, a man Abu Latif recognized from the village. “They said that they had information that our house belonged to ‘apostates,’ ” Abu Latif told me, because of the family’s connection to the police. “But I said, ‘Is there any country in the world without police? Even if you go to Saudi Arabia, to Mecca, there are police protecting you when you pray.’ ” The men seemed unsure how to respond, and they discussed the matter among themselves. Finally, the leader of the contingent said, “We’re only looking for apostates who worked with the Americans. Don’t worry—even if you put your shoes on our head, we won’t touch you.” They each shook his hand and left.
For two days, the congeniality continued—Umm Salam, Falah’s wife, was shocked to find the isis fighters “as sweet as honey”—and the family members still in Zweiya called Falah and Abu Ammar with incredulous updates. On the third morning, though, isis announced its true nature with a boom that echoed across the village: The fighters were blowing up the houses of tribal sheikhs. They began stealing cars and commandeering the farmland of anyone who had worked with the Americans or the Iraqi government.
That same evening, an isis Humvee trundled down Zweiya’s dirt lanes, and a man on a loudspeaker announced that anyone with a relative who’d worked with the Americans or the Iraqi government—at least half the village—would have 24 hours to evacuate. They were ordered to leave their cars behind and take only what they could carry. Umm Ammar, Abu Ammar’s wife, hurried to the bedroom and stuffed belongings into a bag: birth certificates, police-registration forms, photos of the children, a necklace from her husband. By sunrise, she and Abu Latif had gathered her children, Falah’s wife and children, and some cousins and nieces—a party nearly 20 strong—and begun walking. isis controlled the highway that ran through town, so there was only one way to Haditha: through the desert.
For three miles they labored across the sand, Umm Ammar’s skin burning in the midday heat, until they could go no farther. They set up a tent in a swale between dunes. In the afternoon the dust kicked in—the sort of blinding sandstorm that punishes the jazira, the desert wasteland between the Tigris and the Euphrates. By nightfall, the winds had died down, only to be replaced by bitter cold. All night, the children cried and coughed and sneezed and cried some more. As Umm Ammar lay there, unable to sleep, she pondered the dark days ahead. She’d been driven out of the only home she’d ever known. Perhaps all of Iraq would fall, and her family would be forced into hiding, living on scraps and handouts. It was then that she remembered her animals: three heifers and a bull calf. She’d raised them herself, and they’d been with her through it all, from sanctions to war. She was seized by the idea that the cows were the family’s last hope, the sole insurance against the coming hardship.
Umm Ammar rose at dawn, determined to return to Zweiya and rescue her animals. Her sister-in-law thought she’d lost her mind. Mejnoona—“crazy”—was the word she used again and again. “But I thought maybe if I saved the souls of these cows,” Umm Ammar said later, “God will help my family get out of this nightmare.” She decided to take her 4-year-old son, Humam, because she believed the isis fighters wouldn’t harm a mother with her child. Before Abu Latif could notice, they slipped away. They trekked across the jazira, the sun climbing and Umm Ammar’s scarf clinging to her with sweat. When they reached Zweiya, not a soul was in sight. “When you see nobody, it is like there are ghosts everywhere,” she said. “My legs were shaking.” The trees trembled from a loud explosion, and Humam began crying. She knelt down to soothe him, and another explosion sounded, not far away. isis was blowing up more houses.
Umm Ammar and Humam hurried along a dirt footpath through barley fields. When she saw her house, they tiptoed to the outer wall and listened. Only wind. She went around back. Standing there, huddled together, were the animals. She called them by the hues of their coats: Black, Brown, Yellow, Orange. They came to her, and she kissed them and led them away, through the barley. Somewhere behind them, another explosion echoed.
The noon sun was blazing by the time Umm Ammar and her procession made it back to the desert encampment. Abu Latif couldn’t believe what she’d done, and said that her husband would be furious when he found out she’d risked her life. But she cared about only one thing: “I want us to leave here,” she said.
The family walked and hitchhiked along rutted paths and stretches of road. They traveled for two days, joined here and there by other Albu Nimr families fleeing villages along the Euphrates. The desert was teeming with isis fighters and their supporters; 150 young Albu Nimr men got lost and were massacred by pro-isis members of a nearby tribe. Meanwhile, in Hit, townspeople helped ferret out the Albu Nimr policemen who had stayed behind. isis lined up 47 men on the main street and executed them, while a few Hit residents took photos with their cellphones.
In the biting nighttime cold of the desert, the children fell sick. Umm Ammar and the other parents didn’t eat so that the children would have enough, but it didn’t always help. On the second night, the months-old daughter of the Mizbans, Umm Ammar’s neighbors, began turning blue. In the morning, they buried her.
On the afternoon of October 28, 2014, the family finally reached Haditha. When Falah Sabar, whose stoicism was legendary among the family, saw them—filthy, haggard, flea-bitten, but alive—he broke down. Abu Ammar, too, sobbed while he hugged his wife. “They had been raised from the dead,” he told me.
Then they saw the animals, and Falah, wiping his eyes, began to laugh. “How in the world did you bring them here?”
The Sabars were now refugees. Over the coming months, when food became scarce, the milk and butter from Black, Brown, and Yellow would get them by.
Many families from Zweiya ended up in refugee camps, living in tents patched together from reeds, blue UN sheeting, and rugs. Some camps sat on the edge of isis territory, in large tracts of open desert that glittered with broken glass and crumpled energy-drink cans. Amid this upheaval, Falah Sabar considered his family extraordinarily lucky. Because he and Abu Ammar were policemen, they had been allowed to resettle in Haditha, living in the homes of fellow tribespeople. Whenever he called friends in the camps, they complained bitterly that neither Albu Nimr sheikhs nor Iraqi-government representatives had come to visit, let alone sent badly needed medicine and blankets. Many denounced the government in the same breath as the Islamic State.
Falah agreed that there was much to be angry at: the Iraqi government for abandoning Zweiya; the army for failing to answer the policemen’s desperate pleas for ammo; the Americans for supporting their village and then abandoning it. But he couldn’t fathom how his friends could compare the Iraqi government, no matter how corrupt, to isis. A little patience was needed; with time, the authorities would resettle everyone.
In January 2015, Falah and his family had been in Haditha for two months. The influx of refugees there, and the battles raging nearby, had pushed food prices skyward—a bag of flour could run $100. They’d begun skipping meals. Falah considered taking the family abroad and claiming asylum, but he decided it was too dangerous: Terrible stories were circulating of families stuck in detention camps or, worse, drowning at sea. Then one day, Abu Latif heard from an old friend in the Interior Ministry, who knew a real-estate broker in Baghdad. With the war in Anbar raging and car bombs wreaking havoc in Baghdad, Sunnis needed a guarantor, someone to attest that they were not terrorists, in order to move to the capital. For a fee, the broker agreed to vouch for the family. To Falah, this was a stroke of good luck. But Abu Ammar didn’t see it that way. Though he hadn’t been there in more than two years, he followed the news of the capital’s growing violence closely enough to hold to a single, consuming belief: “There’s no law in Baghdad.”
In the end, the cousins agreed to disagree. Abu Ammar found the small house where I visited him in the Kurdish mountains. The broker, meanwhile, located a pair of homes in Baghdad for the families of Falah Sabar and Abu Latif. For the first time in their lives, Abu Ammar and Falah would be separated.
Falah and his family arrived in Hayy al-Jihad, a crowded neighborhood in western Baghdad. Their new home overlooked a large, open dump, in the middle of which, inexplicably, stood a playground. To save on rent, Falah’s brother Jamal, also a policeman, moved in with them, bringing his wife and children—which meant that the two-story structure housed a total of 18 adults and 13 children. Abu Latif’s new home stood a few blocks away.
The Interior Ministry allowed Falah’s eldest son, Salam, to resume his police duties: For two weeks every month, he would return to Haditha to help train tribal fighters. Sometimes, he went to the front lines to fight isis. The other boys found work as day laborers. In eight-hour shifts, they packed grout into cobblestone walls at construction sites around the city. After each grueling day, all 13-year-old Bassim could do was lie in front of the TV watching cartoons, but he liked working better than going to school. The job paid 27,000 Iraqi dinars a day—roughly $25—and gave the boys a chance to get out of the house and mingle with other displaced workers. They talked about the neighbors they’d left behind, or traded rumors of new construction sites with better pay. But they never brought up the armed men patrolling their neighborhoods or the posters that extolled Shiite martyrs killed in Iraq and Syria. “No one dared,” Bassim told me.
Falah’s thoughts turned often to his fields of barley, the date palms shading Abu Ammar’s house, the races Wissam and Salam swam across the green water of the Euphrates—a cartography of loss that could never be replaced by his new city. He and Jamal would often talk late into the night, imagining strangers trudging through their childhood home.
For Umm Salam, the lack of space was the biggest adjustment. “It was like a prison,” she said. “We knew nobody. We were just staring at the four walls.” But she would have gladly stayed in that prison, she said, “if it would keep my sons safe.”
By April, Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was in danger of falling to isis. In Baghdad, Shiite militias—officially known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, “Popular Mobilization Units”—were multiplying with each isis victory. Though many of the militias had ties to Iran, they were funded by the Iraqi government and received air support and occasional battlefield cooperation from the U.S., which judged them the lesser evil in the war against isis.
When Abu Ammar came to visit in early April, he was stunned to see the neighborhood festooned with militia flags of all colors. “I asked Falah,” he recalled, “is this the United Nations of Militias, or is this Iraq?”
It was not long after, on the night of April 28, 2015, that the man in jeans came to the door and told the Sabars to leave.
Their plan was to show up at the airport first thing in the morning, carrying whatever they could, and head for Kurdistan. They had little to pack: clothes, bedding, a few thin floor cushions, a cooler, a kettle, and a portable water filter. Umm Salam also gathered her photos, salvaged from Zweiya. There was Wissam, when he was 10 or 12, playing volleyball in a field. Another showed the family sitting cross-legged on a white blanket, enjoying a picnic under a canopy of palm trees.
After they’d collected everything and left it in the courtyard, Hassan, Falah’s third son, climbed up to the roof to sleep in the open air with his cousin Samir, who lived with Abu Latif and was spending the night. Samir had just returned from visiting Abu Ammar in the Kurdish mountains, the first vacation of his 18 years, and the trip had left him with a taste for travel. He’d ridden the Shuglubana, an undulating roller coaster built right along the ridgeline, and eaten lunch at a fish restaurant perched on the side of a cliff, overlooking a waterfall. For Samir, the prospect of joining Abu Ammar was no exodus but an adventure, a chance to escape the binds of the construction yards, the city, the entire war.
Inside, Umm Salam didn’t settle down next to Falah until after 3 o’clock in the morning. When she woke up sometime later, she saw a man standing over her. She called out and Falah awoke. Before he could say anything, the man pointed a gun at him and ordered him to stand. The man’s face was covered, and he wore camouflage pants and leather boots. Umm Salam shouted, “Who are you?”
She frantically flipped the light switch, but the bulbs had been shattered. Two more figures materialized and tied Falah’s hands behind his back. “Nobody dared to say anything,” Umm Salam recalled. “We didn’t know what was happening. They closed Falah’s eyes with a blindfold and put cloth in his mouth.”
A fourth man guided Jamal and Wissam into the living room. Umm Salam rifled through Falah’s documents and produced his official ID card, which bore the words Iraqi Federal Police. She handed it to one of the men, who looked it over and threw it on the ground. “You’re policemen but you are sitting here, while our sons in Hashd”—the militia movement—“are fighting in Anbar?” Umm Salam tried to tell him that her oldest son, Salam, was in Anbar at that very moment, battling isis. But the man cut her off and turned his weapon to her head. “You are from Anbar,” he said. “You are isis. You are terrorists.”
The intruders brought all the adult men into the living room and herded the women and children into the downstairs hallway. They rooted through the house, taking money and jewelry. From the stairwell, Umm Salam could see the men being made to line up against a wall. Now and again, her husband was illuminated by a camera flash.
Then the men were led outside. Umm Salam peeked through the curtains into the courtyard. As the first morning light edged into the city, she saw the men of her life disappearing through the front gate. Just before it closed, she caught a glimpse of her son Wissam being shoved into a car. Once they were gone, she reached into her shirt, where she had hidden her cellphone. “My hands were shaking,” she said. “I called Abu Latif’s house for help.”
Outside, Falah’s blindfold was loose, and he could just make out his surroundings through the opening at the bottom. There were two, maybe three cars, carrying him and the seven other men from his family—his brother, sons, and nephews. He felt the car lurch around a corner, make a second sharp turn, and pull to a sudden stop. They hadn’t gone far. Before he could say anything, the door opened and he was shoved from behind. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” a militiaman shouted. Gunfire erupted. As he stumbled, his blindfold slipped off. They were in a school yard, and militiamen were shooting at them. He saw Wissam go down, then Jamal, and then Samir. Then everything went dark.
Video: An Inside Look at a Massacre on Sunni Refugees
When Falah awoke, he saw tubes and wires and heard the whirring of machines. Abu Ammar took his hand and told him it would all be okay, his family was safe now. They were being treated by doctors, he said, and he would see them soon. But Falah, who couldn’t speak, shook his head no and held up seven fingers.
Three days had passed since the shooting, and Abu Ammar felt as if he hadn’t slept at all. On the morning of April 29, he’d received a frantic phone call from Abu Latif: Schoolchildren had found eight men—Falah, Jamal, their sons, and Samir—lying in pools of blood on a playground, and the police had brought Falah to the hospital. Abu Ammar drove the seven hours to Baghdad that afternoon and went straight to Falah’s house. When Umm Salam saw him, she asked whether he’d heard from Falah or the boys. “I was struggling,” he told me. “I didn’t know how to say it.” He decided to tell her that her husband and sons had been arrested and would soon be released.
Over the next two days, he escorted Umm Salam and the others to Kurdistan. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Falah’s condition wasn’t improving. The doctors wanted to keep him for observation, but Abu Ammar was desperate to get Falah to Kurdistan—beyond the reach of the Shiite militias. Because it was impossible to know whom to trust, Abu Ammar had concocted a story for doctors about how Falah had been injured on the front lines fighting isis. “We were worried that the militias were looking for him, to finish the job,” Abu Ammar told me. It took three days to persuade the hospital to release Falah. When he was finally brought to Kurdistan, doctors discovered that a bullet had passed through his neck, and they found damage to his fifth, seventh, and eighth cranial nerves. They believed his loss of speech might be permanent, along with the loss of vision in his left eye and hearing in his left ear.
The question of how to tell Falah’s family the truth weighed on Abu Ammar. “I had a feeling of collapsing inside myself,” he said. He knew he couldn’t delay indefinitely, but he struggled to find the words. He wrote down lines, crossed them out, and wrote new ones, rehearsing them alone and with his wife. Finally, after Falah’s and Jamal’s families had been living in his cramped home for about two weeks, he gathered the women together. He had never felt more nervous.
“You know this is Iraq,” he began, “and every family has suffered in its own way. And in all of our lives, God will test us.” Then he told them that their husbands and sons were dead; Falah was the only survivor. He looked into his hands as the women cried and screamed.
Abu Ammar recounted all of this to me in the courtyard of his home, under the shade of a giant wooden trellis. In a box, he kept photos and ID cards, the only physical roster of what had been taken from him: Jamal Saqar, age 43, and his sons, Qusay and Louay, 20 and 18; Hossam Falah Sabar, 30, Hassan Falah Sabar, 27, and Wissam Falah Sabar, 23; and Samir Mishraf, 18.
I noticed that whenever Umm Salam or the other women related their ordeal, they did so with the detached, objective tone of a historian—perhaps because dissociating themselves, viewing themselves in the third person, was their only way to remain intact. But Abu Ammar, who had handled so much with equanimity, couldn’t help reliving the events with every telling, and his eyes reddened whenever we spoke of the massacre. He told me he often thought back to Samir’s visit to Kurdistan. After the killings, he said, “I went out, looked at the mountains, and I saw Samir everywhere. On the roller coaster, standing next to me.”
For Falah, memories of that night and his sons are inscribed on his physical being. To meet me, he would come limping into a room aided by his cousin and nephews. He has slowly regained some ability to speak, but only with difficulty, so most of our interviews consisted of him pantomiming or scrawling answers to my questions on paper. He kept his head tilted, pressing the palms of his hands against its sides. “My brain,” he would say. “My brain is leaking.”
No accurate statistics exist as to how many Sunnis have been killed by anti-isis forces in the past two years. The overwhelming presence of Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in government-controlled territory makes the question hazardous to investigate. Still, a network of under-the-radar NGOs and human-rights workers have been documenting cases, and they allege that—in certain areas, at least— anti-isis forces may have killed as many Sunnis as isis has.
Lina Ismail, who works for an NGO in Baghdad that aids displaced families, described to me a pattern of violence linking the fates of refugees to the fortunes of isis on the battlefield. After the fall of Mosul to isis in 2014, she learned that hundreds of Sunnis had been rounded up and disappeared by Iraqi forces outside Baghdad. Following the fall of Ramadi one year later, Shiite militias similarly took revenge on Sunni refugees in the capital. “They were saying, ‘Why don’t you go to Ramadi and fight?’ ” she recalled. According to a 2015 UN human-rights report, anti-isis forces seemed to be acting with “total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.”
In Baghdad, I met a Sunni former lawmaker from Babil province, south of the capital, who asked not to be named out of fear for his life. When I brought up the retaliatory killings, he dropped a sheaf of papers on his desk: hundreds of letters, petitions, police reports, Interior Ministry memos—all pertaining to Sunnis from his constituency who, in the weeks after the fall of Mosul, had been disappeared by the Iraqi army. One petition, addressed to the Iraqi Parliament, read: “On November 9th, the bodies of a Babil Provincial Council member, and the judge Ibrahim al-Janabi, who had been arrested together with others over four months ago, were found. We hope for your personal intervention to stop this tragedy of targeting our sons, killing them in cold blood, and leaving them by the roadside.” A police report documented the disappearance of 23 Sunni civilians who were arrested from shops on the road leading into the town of Jurf as-Sakhar and never seen again. In the nearby town of Mahmudiya, security forces arrested 18 men in one neighborhood, most of them imams. “We haven’t found them,” a petition from tribal sheikhs read, “and they have been arrested six months ago.” Some bodies eventually turned up, but others are still missing.
The UN found a similar pattern. In Sinsil, Diyala province, for example, Iraqi forces allegedly set fire to an army base holding 53 Sunnis. “Witnesses discovered their bodies: some were charred beyond recognition; others were only partially burnt, revealing gunshot wounds, severe bruises and broken limbs.” Certain Shiite militias even matched isis in gruesome propaganda. One video featured a militia commander who strung up a burnt man—supposedly an isis fighter—and sliced him like shawarma. In another, fighters beheaded and disemboweled two captives. Because the victims were not Western, such videos received little notice internationally, but among Sunnis they sent a chilling message.
Falah and Abu Ammar once felt certain that the Sunnis of Anbar would band together to overthrow isis and end its tyrannical rule. But a unified Sunni uprising now seems a fantasy. Even the idea of Sunnis as a coherent entity is a myth of the post-2003 world. Since the end of 2013, the Sunni elite has split three ways: Some have joined isis; some have moved to Baghdad, tied their fate to the government, and helped to run Sunni militias working with the Iraqi security forces; and others have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan or Amman, Jordan, where they have allied with neighboring Sunni states.
Many in this last group dream of bypassing the Iraqi government and directly receiving American guns and money to fight isis. But for these Sunni elites, Baghdad remains every bit the enemy that the Islamic State is. Many are nostalgic for Baathist rule, and refuse to accept the reality of a Shiite majority. An outside attempt to arm them might lead to the breakup of Iraq, as tribal armies inevitably turn their guns on the Shia-dominated government. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to varying degrees, may well embrace this outcome. Meanwhile, many sheikhs who allied with isis have come to regret their decision, after being stripped of their power and property. Those who objected have been locked up, tortured, and in some cases executed.
After a dozen years of war, the Sunnis are split not only between tribes but within them as well. Many tribes now have two paramount sheikhs, one in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and one in Baghdad. The fractures run down the line, too: Away from the sheikhs’ luxurious villas, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Sunni who has kind words for his or her leaders. “Every single one,” a refugee from Hit told me, “is a criminal.”
While the Sunni community is in disarray, isis itself is hardly faring better. Popular enthusiasm for its rule in places like Hit is long gone, meaning it has been unable to hold territory or advance on Baghdad. Under military pressure from the Iraqi army, Shiite militias, and U.S. air strikes, the Islamic State is slowly withering: In December, it lost Ramadi. In March, Iraqi forces began advancing into Hit.
But many Sunnis will tell you that even if this campaign succeeds in toppling isis, it will have done nothing to address the fundamental divides that helped produce the group in the first place. Those rifts are the result of decades of American policy and misrule by Saddam, and they will likely remain long after isis is gone.
The Sunni refugees I met have little hope for a peaceful Iraq; whatever ideas they may have had about reclaiming their place in Iraqi society or undoing Shia-dominated rule have come unraveled, replaced by the most basic imperative of all: Stay alive. “I don’t ever want to go back,” a construction worker named Mohammed, who had managed to escape isis-controlled Fallujah, told me. “Even if isis falls, everyone is trying to get out, get as far away from Iraq as possible.”
One day last November, in a roadside restaurant in Baghdad’s central Masbah neighborhood, I met a cook named Abdul Hamid. He told me that earlier in the week, a Shiite family had gathered near his home to mourn an 11-year-old boy who had died of dysentery. According to tradition, the family had erected a tent to honor the departed and offer food and sweets to passersby. Around lunchtime, a man had worked his way through the throng, reached the table of food and drinks, and blown himself up. “It was a horrible explosion,” Hamid told me. “Bodies were totally scattered.” The boy’s father and uncle were burned alive—“they had to use fire extinguishers to put them out. They were carbonized.” Hamid’s cousin was also present that day. He’d recently resolved to volunteer for the front lines to fight isis. “He was about to enter his home, and shrapnel cut his neck and made holes in his body,” Hamid said. “He became martyred.” In total, 18 people were killed, all Shias, including a sheikh and a 7-year-old girl.
The attack was part of the grinding, anonymous toll on Shiite civilians from isis car bombs and suicide attacks—the Islamic State’s strategy to terrorize Shiite communities and deepen the country’s sectarian rift, which is the group’s lifeblood. If isis were to somehow capture Baghdad, the threat to Shias would be existential. This suggests that behind the rise of Shiite chauvinism, the militias, and the abuse of Sunnis lies the raw logic of survival. Take one example: In 2014, militias captured Jurf as-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, from isis and banned all Sunni civilians—meaning thousands lost their homes and possessions. But over the following year, car bombs originating in the area plummeted.
Seen in this light, the neighborhood iconography that had so unsettled the Sabars in Baghdad—the posters of Shiite martyrs, the billboard of the ayatollahs—seems less like sectarian aggression and more like defiance. I wondered how ordinary Shias would see the Sabars’ tragedy. If a Shiite militia had driven them from their neighborhood, was a Shiite family now living in their place? If so, who were they? Had history—Saddam, the Americans, isis—come crashing down on them, in a way different from, but somehow parallel to, how it had affected the Sabars? Did they know of the grisly circumstances under which they had assumed their new home?
I decided to visit the house and find out. Late last year, Abu Ammar, who was scraping by as a taxi driver between Kurdistan and Baghdad, agreed to show me where it stood. We would have to be cautious: The family had lived in an area reportedly under the control of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, “The League of the Righteous,” perhaps the deadliest of all the Iraqi militias. The group is believed to be trained and funded by the Quds Revolutionary Force in Iran, and the head of the local chapter is rumored to be a onetime criminal who rose to prominence during the American occupation for carrying out kidnappings and beheadings. According to some residents I spoke with, no militia activity takes place in the neighborhood without his approval.
We set out late in the afternoon. With us was my translator, a friend whom I’ll call Hashim. Hayy al-Jihad was an explosion of color: magenta billboards, glowing green posters, black flags for mourning, red ones for revenge. Here and there, we crossed checkpoints of armed men in T-shirts and camouflage pants. Every house and shop had Shiite slogans and flags out front. We passed a few men with machine guns standing on a street corner smoking. Abu Ammar pointed out the house, and then for his safety we left the neighborhood to drop him off.
Hashim and I circled back. He was on edge. Each week, dozens of maimed and discolored bodies show up at the morgue, usually from neighborhoods like this one. We slipped past the militia checkpoints again. The sky was growing dark. A white car appeared behind us, keeping its distance and following our turns. We passed a school, and from over the wall we could hear the voices of children playing. A sign near the gate said the abbasid school, which, we realized, is where the Sabar men had been executed.
Pulling up to the house, I watched with relief as the white car passed us and drove on. As we got out, the fumes from the dump across the street overwhelmed me. The front gate was a faded teal, with a huge patch of rust. A giant flag commemorating Shiite martyrs leaned over from the house next door and flapped against the roof. It was now dark—a streetlight had come on—and I knocked on the gate. No answer. I knocked again and waited. No lights were on inside. The stench of sewage from the open dump was making me dizzy, and suddenly I noticed that the patch of rust on the gate was undulating. I reached out to touch it, but Hashim stopped me. “Look,” he said. “They’re flies.” There were hundreds of them, a crawling mass. Rain began to fall. I knocked again. A few children from the neighborhood started wandering over. We decided to leave.
I noticed, tied to the gate, an aleg, a green cloth meant to attract blessings and ward off evil spirits, common among Shias. Was it a mark of domination, or atonement? Perhaps a token of remorse from the neighborhood, or even from someone linked to the militias? Regardless, the house was clearly abandoned. A Sunni family had been driven out, but no Shiite family seemed comfortable moving in. Despite the cycle of revenge, the tit-for-tat killings, perhaps this was no zero-sum game: An act of violence against Sunnis was not, at least in this case, the Shiite community’s gain.
Later, I called Abu Ammar to describe what I’d found. “Since the accident,” he said, “we always believed that there were people in the neighborhood, Shias, who had tried to help us. I don’t know, but maybe that’s why the man came to our house the night before, to warn us.” It was odd that the family always used this word, accident, to describe the massacre. Perhaps when official rhetoric is so starkly delineated, when isis is understood as the distillation of pure evil, one is left with no language to describe, or make sense of, the other side.
For the Sabars and so many others, to affix a label like terrorism to that other side is a privilege that belies the terrible choices this war against isis has foisted on them. When I last spoke with Abu Ammar, in December, he was in a hurry. Salam, Falah’s only surviving adult son, had been in town on leave, and he was getting ready to depart. He was now his family’s sole breadwinner, and his arrivals and departures had become occasions for family gatherings. It was early morning and Abu Ammar was about to drive Salam to the airport. Salam was dressed in blue fatigues and a beret. He was heading once again to the trenches of Anbar, gun slung over his shoulder and government ID in hand, to fight the Islamic State.