There is one thing that those fleeing the war in Mosul cannot afford to leave behind: their identity cards.

On May 1, about a hundred men squatted inside a tent, manned by officers of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service. They had just emerged from western Mosul, where backed by the firepower of the US-led international coalition, Iraqi forces are fighting to dislodge the Islamic State or ISIS from its last remaining strongholds. An officer of the Counter-Terrorism Service said that 3,000 people were escaping western Mosul every day. While women and children waited outside, the men, looking forlorn, clutched the laminated pieces of paper, essential to proving to the Iraqi government that they were ordinary citizens and not collaborators of ISIS.

The screening isn’t limited to just those fleeing their homes. Iraqi security forces have combed through neighbourhoods on the eastern side of the city, which were retaken earlier, detaining young men they suspect of being complicit in ISIS violence.

Human Rights Watch has raised concern over the detentions. In a visit to detention centres south of Mosul in early March, its researchers found the Iraqi interior ministry was holding “at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at three makeshift prisons”.

In one neighbourhood of eastern Mosul, spoke to three families who said their young male relatives had been picked up by the security forces but the families had not been notified of the detentions. One of the young men reportedly died in custody in March.

Abdul Kadir al-Shazari, the deputy governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is a part, admitted to the possibility of unlawful detentions, but said they were not happening on a large-scale.

The case of the ceramic tile dealer

Naqtal Jama Ahmed drives a taxi for a living. He said his son, Tahaa Naqtal Jama, 26, was picked up by the federal police from the family’s home in Al-Salam neighbourhood on January 20. When Ahmed went to the federal police office, he was told someone had filed a complaint against Tahaa, accusing him of working for ISIS.

Ahmed denies his son had anything to do with the organisation. Residents of the neighbourhood said they knew Tahaa as a young man who ran a ceramic floor tiles business in partnership with his cousin. “The senior people of the neighbourhood even went and told the security forces that we guarantee that Tahaa did not pay allegiance to ISIS,” Ahmed said.

It took the family several weeks to trace where 26-year-old Tahaa had been detained. “They [the police] kept on telling us over and over again that Tahaa is not here, until we managed to get an answer that Tahaa is in the counter-terrorism detention centre in Qayyarah,” said Ahmed. could not visit Qayyarah, which lies 60-km south of Mosul. But researchers of the Human Rights Watch who visited the detention centres on March 3 reported that they were so overcrowded that “no detainee can lie down to sleep”. “In one Qayyarah detention facility, a room approximately 4 by 6 meters held 114 men, and in the other a room 3 by 4 meters held 38,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

Iraq’s law requires authorities to bring detainees before a judge within 24 hours. But prison staff told Human Rights Watch that they had held some detainees for as long as four months.

In Tahaa’s case, in early April, three and a half months after he was detained, a lawyer hired by his family went to Qayyarah to get the young man’s signatures. He was told that Tahaa was dead.

Ahmed has seen his son’s body in the morgue of a government hospital in Qayyarah. The hospital authorities expressed their inability to hand over the body without clearance from the security forces. They told him a forensic examination had not been done and the cause of death was unknown.

“Now the government and intelligence is telling me you can take his body without documents,” said Ahmed. “Don’t ask for any documents, death certificate or any piece of paper from the morgue, and you can bury the body anywhere you like.”

“Tahaa was not presented before a judge,” he continued. “A person is innocent before he is proven guilty.”

Tahaa's identity document.

A similar name

Tahaa is not the only young man to have been taken by the security forces from the Al-Salam neighbourhood in eastern Mosul.

Mahmud Jadour Hameed, a civil contractor, said his son Muhanad, 24, was picked up on February 11. He claimed security forces had come to the neighbourhood and asked people to gather at the school. Here, they checked everybody’s identity documents. They said Muhanad’s name was similar to that of an ISIS suspect.

Hameed said his son was taken to the detention centre in Hamman al-Alil, 30 kms south of Mosul. “I am not certain of the day, perhaps on April 22, he was taken in front of a judge who acquitted him,” he said. “But he has still not been released.”

Prison staff in Qayyarah told researchers of Human Rights Watch in March that the judge had cleared at least 300 men for release, but they were being held unlawfully on the intervention of the National Security Service, a security body under the prime minister with a mandate to screen people for ISIS connections. “Security forces’ failure to comply with a judicial order for release is a crime under Iraqi law,” Human Right Watch observed.

Hameed said his nephew Abdullah Nasir Khalaf was taken from his house in the Al-Mazara neighbourhood by three masked men in January. “We don’t know who took him and why.” The family has not been able to trace him.

Mahmud Jadour Hameed wants his son Muhanad to be released.

Old dispute within the family

In the same neighbourhood, another family reported three members missing.

A government employee who works in the water resources department in Mosul, who did not want to be identified, said when the fighting grew intense in December, part of his family fled the city for Jahra Khatun village, 65 km south of Mosul, where his brother has a second house. “He has two wives and keeps two houses,” he said.

In the village, his brother, Mohamad Jasim Khalaf, was picked up by the security forces on December 29, he said. Later, on January 1, his son Ibrahim Ahmed Jasim, 21, and his nephew Sadeeq Mohamad Jasim, 17, were also picked up. “They were taken during a house raid when they were sleeping at home,” he said.

According to the government employee, his family has been targetted because of an old tribal dispute with his cousins living in the same village. “It goes all the way back to our grandfather’s time,” he said. More recently, the cousins were upset with his brother because he had remarried – his first wife was related to them.

The cousins went on to join the Popular Mobilisation Forces, made up of mostly Shia militias, with a few Sunni ones. Known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or Hashids, the militias were formed in 2014 after ISIS took over parts of Iraq. In 2016, they were brought under the control of the Iraqi security forces. They have been accused of indiscriminate violence on civilians and of settling old scores in the name of fighting ISIS. The government employee said his cousins were part of a Sunni militia named Fursan Al-Jabour, or the knights of Jabour.

He believes his brother is being held in the Muthanna detention centre near the old airport of Baghdad, while his son and nephew are in the detention centre in Hammam al-Alil. He said he has been taking food for them.

The prison staff in Hammam al-Alil told Human Rights Watch that the families of detainees were asked to bring food since “the ministries did not provide any food for the detainees for the first several weeks after the facility opened”.

Said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch: “Iraqis should understand better than most the dangerous consequences of abusing detainees in cruel prison conditions.”

Deep divides

Naqtal Jama Ahmed, the 49-year-old taxi driver whose son Tahaa reportedly died while in detention, served as a soldier in the Iraqi army for seven years when the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein. Ahmed was wounded in battle in Qādisiyyah, as the 1980-’88 Iraq-Iran war is known. In 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, he was taken as prisoner of war in Saudi Arabia for three months. “I was treated with dignity by the enemy country,” he said, “something our government is not doing to its own people”.

Ahmed with his grandchild and Tahaa's son, Laith.

But the people of Iraq have been bitterly divided along sectarian lines. Many Shia Arabs, who form the majority in the country, felt marginalised under Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni Arab. After a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and defeated Hussein, a Shia-led government took charge, provoking a backlash among Sunnis. When Sunni militants of the Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and spilled over into Mosul in June 2014, some in the Sunni-majority city welcomed it.

“The local community felt oppressed by security forces between 2003-’14,” explained Abdul Kadir al-Shazari, the deputy governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is a part. But the support did not last long, he said. ISIS perpetrated extreme violence on the local people, who became its victims.

But Iraqi soldiers, most of whom are Shias, are unsympathetic. “They are all ISIS,” said a soldier guarding Mosul University about the residents of Mosul. “Even their dogs are ISIS.”

Such deep-seated hostilities give rise to fears of reprisals by Iraqi security forces. Already, many Mosul residents believe the heavy rocket artillery aimed at their neighbourhoods was part of a conspiracy to destroy their city. The same people, however, support detentions by Iraqi forces, as long as the “real collaborators” of ISIS are held.

The deputy governor of Nineveh defended the way the intelligence agencies were identifying collaborators. “They will be referred to the courts and judges,” he said. “Everything is under control. There have been no revenge attacks against those who collaborated with ISIS.”

Asked about the case of Tahaa and others from the al-Salam neighbourhood, he said: “I personally don’t have such information. But in any area that has seen such a conflict, there will definitely be some cases where the law has been broken. Even if such violations have taken place, there will be a few, here and there, not on a large-scale.”

Tahaa’s father Ahmed said the people of the city had suffered a lot since 2003 – first under the Iraqi government, then under ISIS. He lost his taxi to ISIS fighters, who took it away without making a payment. He’s clear about where his allegiance lies. “You can get your rights from the government.” He reiterated his appeal: “I want to know the reason behind my son’s death. I want to receive his body so that I could give him a respectful burial.”