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After two years under IS, Saddam's joy at losing the beard

  • "We were not allowed to smoke, use phones, watch TV, and had to let our beards grow long and wear robes."

By Sarah Benhaida

Khazir, Iraq (AFP) -- For the past two years, much of Saddam Dahham's life boiled down to praying and haggling with the jihadists ruling his village over the length of his beard.

Now he, his wife and their three children are free from the Islamic State (IS) group that took over their village northeast of Mosul, the extremists' main hub in Iraq.

On August 7, 2014, the fighters of the new "caliphate" that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul just over a month earlier entered Topzawa.

That day, Dahham's life changed dramatically.

"We were not allowed to smoke, to use phones, not allowed to watch TV and we had to let our beards grow long and wear short djellaba (robes)," he told AFP as he waited on the roadside for permission to reach a nearby camp.

The following day, Dahham had finally been given a shelter and was all smiles, incessantly rubbing the now short stubble on his cheeks with the back of his hand.

"I had this heavy thing dangling from my chin," the 36-year-old said. "I wasn't comfortable. It was really itchy."

"I saw that there are razors in the humanitarian kits we are being given. I'm finally going to resume a normal life," the former truck driver said.

He lost his job the day invading IS fighters cut the roads to the autonomous region of Kurdistan, through which a significant amount of Iraq's trade transits.

'Rule of death'

In just one day, Dahham's family and more than 1,000 other Iraqis escaping from their jihadist rulers and the fighting fled toward Kurdish areas where aid workers received them.

Estimates say a million-plus residents remain in the city itself but civilians tend to attempt to flee only when Iraqi forces are close enough to secure their escape.

The total number of people displaced since the start of the offensive on October 17 has topped 11,000 but the fighting has so far been taking place in sparsely populated areas.

The aid community fears that a breach into the city proper will trigger massive outflows of civilians that could overwhelm the existing relief infrastructure.

After waiting for a whole day, Dahham and his family were among the first to be given one of the thousands of tents that have been going up across the Nineveh plain.

They had to leave everything behind in their flight because the Iraqi forces that freed them gave them no time to pack.

Their pockets are empty and they have nothing but a tent above their heads, but they had a good first night, "without worrying all the time... and feeling death all around" them, said Dahham.

"We lived under the rule of death. We were never at peace," added the ethnic Kurd, as he held his three-year-old daughter Mona pressed against him.

No school

"Even under a tent, we're better off here than back home for now. We're not living under the bombs," he said on the day Iraqi forces completed the reconquest of his village.

When the jihadists controlled every aspect of life in Topzawa, the schools remained shut.

Mona's elder brother and sister, Omar and Zina, did not set foot in a classroom for more than two years, their father said.

"They were scared and cried all the time," he said. In the camp near Khazir, schooling facilities are not yet available but "they feel better here."

Dahham said living conditions under IS were not better for adults.

"It was a ghastly life: everything was prohibited except praying all the time," he said.

"We were living like in the Middle Ages," said Umm Ali, a 35-year-old mother from a nearby village. "There was no school because they had sent all the school supplies to Syria."

One of Dahham's cousins, who was afraid to give his name because he said close relatives of his remained in IS-controlled areas, recounted how the jihadists forced his wife to wear the full niqab veil.

"When we went to the market together, I couldn't even tell her from the other women. And under the Islamic State, addressing or touching a woman in public is out of the question," he said.

"The punishment for that is death. So I would recognise her from the colour of her handbag."

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