When Mohammed Abu Ali went to bed on August 8, he was living in Makhmour, a Kurdish-populated town near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. When he woke up the next day, he was in Makhmour, an abandoned town under the control of the Islamic State.
Unknown to him as he went to bed, the Islamic State was beginning to descend upon Makhmour. Kurdish peshmerga fighters held off the militants long enough to evacuate the city before the peshmerga themselves also retreated. Many residents of the town sought refuge in the nearby mountains, a common tactic of the oft-persecuted Kurds. Others sped away in cars headed for the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
Abu Ali, a clockmaker who lived alone, was unaware that any of it had happened.
When he awoke, he watched a "nice Egyptian film" and fiddled with his air conditioning. Hours passed. Alone in his home, he had unwittingly become the last remaining resident of Makhmour; he was now living under the Islamic State. VICE News went to the town — back under control of the Kurds — and asked Abu Ali about his ordeal.
What was the first sign that something wrong?
I heard some stuff outside, but I thought it was peshmerga. When the time for evening prayer came [at about 6pm], I went to get ready and wash up. But the call for prayer was late. That is when I knew something was weird.
Did you have any idea how serious it was?
No, no. I just decided to pray at my house, but then the mosque began to call for prayer. I know the voice, and the sheikh was different from the one we hear everyday, so I decided to go to the mosque to see. When I went, there was this giant hole in the street and behind that there was a big truck with guns on top of it. People got out and told me to put my hands up and come to them — it was the Islamic State. They asked me if I was a terrorist and I said, "No, no, I am nothing!" Then they asked if I was a fighter from Mosul [fighting] against them. I told them "No, I am alone! I am nothing! I am not with anyone!" I told them I just fixed watches and own a shop.
"They asked if I was armed, and I told them I own a clock shop. At first they didn't believe me, then I told them where my shop was and they said, 'Prove it.'"
What happened after they stopped you?
Well, they asked me if I was armed, and I told them I own a clock shop. At first they didn't believe me, then I told them where my shop was and they said, "Prove it." They wanted me to show them that it was my shop, so I pulled out my keys and the Islamic State men opened my shop. So then they believed me, and I felt better.
That's all it took?
When they came inside, they saw a photo of me with big, wild hair when I was younger. It looked weird to them I guess — they asked me, "Is this a monster?" And I told them "No, this was me when I was young." Then they closed the door and gave me my keys back. They took me to the mosque with them; it was full of Islamic State.
When did you realize you were the only resident left in Makhmour?
Just then, when we went to the mosque. There were at least 25 [fighters]. There were three cars with guns — one had a rocket launcher — right outside the mosque. When I walked into the mosque, everyone was looking at me. They all started asking each other, "Who is this, who is this?"
The one who caught me told them I was the only person left in Makhmour. They asked me if I was armed, and I told them no. They told me to [show them where] to turn the lights on and to come pray with them. All of them were waiting, ready to pray. The sheikh was in the front; someone behind him was filming everything. We started to pray. I was standing in the middle of all of them.
Did you think they would kill you?
No, why would they kill me? I am Muslim and Kurdish, I told them that and the sheikh said that this wasn't their business. He told me, "As long as you are Muslim and you can declare Allah as your god and Mohammed as your prophet, then why would we kill you? You aren't a fighter."
What happened next?
He asked me what I wanted; I told them that I just wanted my safety. They asked me if I wanted to eat, and I told them no. They told me, "If you want to go to the mountains to be with your people who ran, then you can go." I told them I wanted to go home. The sheikh said, "Go to your house and sit." On my way home, one of the Islamic State screamed at me: "Don't go outside!"
And you went home after that?
Yes, I went to my house, and I didn't leave for two days. Then I started hearing shooting and bombs. I didn't know who was shooting — peshmerga or Islamic State. I stayed inside until I could hear people shouting and crying outside; I still didn't know who it was so I looked outside my door and saw a man who started shouting in Kurdish. After that I went out to the street, where I saw peshmerga soldiers.
Were you happy to see them?
Of course. I ran to them and kissed and hugged them. I felt like I could finally relax and feel safe again.
Were the Islamic State fighters Iraqis?
They were all from Iraq. I know all the accents from this area; they were from here.
Do you think the Islamic State will try to come back?
No, God willing they will not come back because the peshmerga and the Kurdish people are strong. They already tried to take the city, and they were pushed out. Now I am ready to have a gun — I am ready to fight. I will fight until I die for my city.