Residents of Iraq village on edge of Mosul celebrate freedom from ISIS fighters

GOGJALI, Iraq (AFP) - The most popular object in Gogjali on Wednesday (Nov 2) was the electric hair clipper a member of the Iraqi special forces who retook the village from militants gave the residents.

On the steps leading to the mosque, one man revelled in his first shave in two years and sheared off thick tufts from the beard that militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group forced him to grow.

Other men queued up patiently to use the precious tool, which was banned under the rules of the "caliphate" that ISIS proclaimed in the city of Mosul in June 2014.

Gogjali, which lies on the eastern edge of Mosul, this week became the most advanced post of the massive Iraqi offensive launched last month to retake the city from the ISIS.

After more than two years of a tyranny during which one word could get residents executed, the people of Gogjali were unstoppably talkative.

"We had to wear the dishdasha," one teenager explained, referring to the traditional Arab robe.

"Above the ankle or you would get lashes," said the boy, sporting a chequered shirt and a pair of trousers, which he said he has not worn once since ISIS took over.

The elite Counter-Terrorism Service entered Gogjali earlier this week and on Wednesday were still securing the village to prepare for a push into Mosul proper.

Mosul's recapture could deal a death blow to the "caliphate", whose brutality has plunged the region deeper into chaos and inspired attacks the world over.

On Wednesday it was the simple joys of a normal daily life that Gogjali residents enjoyed and the freedom to get countless tales of oppression off their chests.

"Sometimes I was driving my taxi, they would stop me and say: 'You've been smoking, we know it, open your mouth so we can smell your breath'," said a man in his 60s, who had not trimmed his beard yet.

If the breath test was inconclusive "they would check my fingers to see if they were yellow" from smoking.

He said the worst thing about ISIS rule was that people constantly felt vulnerable to any delation.

One such case landed him in a jail for 62 days, during which he said he remained blindfolded and underwent mock executions by beheading.

The sexagenarian, who like most others in Gogjali would not give his name out of concern for relatives still living in ISIS-held territory, said he paid his way out.

Next to him, the man who was finishing his turn with the hair clipper said ISIS "had legions of accountants" and said that the militants' ruthless levying of the "zakat", or almsgiving, forced him to close his shop.

Many residents spoke of how ISIS militants had turned the zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, into a pretext for a systematic racket of the population.

Several residents said that they or their relatives were jailed for the sole purpose of raising bail money that the "Islamic State" had set at US$10,000 (S$13,844).

As Gogjali residents recovered their freedom to speak, the village's darkest moments also surfaced from two years of silence and people started sharing their accounts.

"People were executed in public and the entire village was made to watch," said one man, as children around him nodded silently.

"Once, a woman was stoned and all those who looked away were beaten," said another man.

A third said that "men were thrown off the rooftops of six- or seven-storey buildings, most of them former members of the security forces."

Many residents looked dazed as they emerged from their homes to see government forces taking over their village.

Mr Abu Ahmed, who worked as a barber until ISIS swept in two years ago, looked around him as dozens of fully veiled women and bearded men walked cautiously out of their homes, some of them still carrying white flags.

"We're just coming out of the open-air prison in which we lived," he said.

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