Ghazia Ahmed al Jabouri, a diminutive mother of 14, can trace Iraq’s catastrophes through the upheavals in her own 79-year-long life.
She has endured the violent deaths of three of her 10 sons. She also survived two attempts on her own life by the Islamic State when it was called al-Qaida in Iraq.
“They are monsters. They are dirty people,” she said. “You can smell their disgusting odor.”
Jabouri fled Mosul in June as the Islamic State overran northern Iraq’s largest city, the start of an offensive that eventually savaged more than one-third of the country.
Now living in a rented apartment in Baghdad, she shares the trials of dislocation with hundreds of thousands of other impoverished Iraqis uprooted by the latest of the calamities that have roiled the country over the past three decades.
Like millions of her countrymen, she has borne her share of misfortune, including the deaths of her sons and a brother and the loss of her husband to illness. Her family has suffered from the dangers of taking sides in the sectarian war unleashed when the Americans invaded.
But few can claim to have stood up the way Jabouri, a Sunni Muslim, did to the Sunni extremists who emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. She did it, she said, by denouncing on television to his face the al-Qaida sympathizer who killed her son Walid, a police captain, on a Mosul street in July 2004.
“I became famous on television. They showed me fighting against al-Qaida,” said Jabouri, her rheumy eyes smiling from a wizened face framed in a black chador. “Those who killed my son were also police officers. Al-Qaida saw me and wanted to kill me.”
The extremists tried to do just that within about a month of the broadcast. Twice. Both bids failed, although the grandmother of 12 was wounded by the car bomb used in the second attack.
“I was hit in the thigh by shrapnel. But I didn’t go to the hospital because I would have been killed. We called the Americans, and they treated me,” Jabouri recalled. “I wasn’t afraid. I said, ‘Rats, we will drive you from your holes.’”
“I’m proud of my mother,” chimed in another son, Ali, 35, who was wounded in the first attack.
Her son Faris died when he was 18 in a shooting accident while training with a youth militia to fight Iran, she said. It was June 1988, two months before the Iran-Iraq War ended.
“They didn’t give him any kind of funeral rites. Why? He wasn’t at the front,” she explained.
Worse, militia members showed up at her home just before the funeral, demanding payment for the machine gun that Hussein’s government had given Faris.
“We had set up a tent to receive mourners,” Jabouri said. “I told them he was in the camp when he was killed. So why are you asking for money? They left.”
The backdrop to Jabouri’s run-in with al-Qaida in Iraq was the group’s first drive to capture Mosul, in 2004. Bolstered by foreign fighters coming from Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq and local allies fought vicious street battles against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces. While the offensive eventually failed, extremist sleeper cells remained entrenched in Mosul, emerging this summer to help the Islamic State seize the city.
Ali, Walid and two other brothers, Oday and Nimr, were in the security forces, dangerous jobs made more hazardous by al-Qaida in Iraq infiltrators and sympathizers.
Jabouri felt that her sons had a duty to serve even though they would be supervised by the American occupiers. Moreover, her ailing husband was unemployed, and the family needed the money.
On the day in July 2004 that he died, Walid was patrolling a market, Ali recounted.
“We left the house together that morning and went our separate ways. Walid was in the market with other guys, searching for weapons. The Americans were looking on from a distance,” said Ali. “Someone came from behind, called him by name and shot him dead.”
“The Americans came in two squads. One chased the killer and the other tried to help Walid,” he continued. The shooter escaped.
Two days later, U.S. troops detained a police lieutenant in another shooting. The suspect, a man named Sukhair, was recognized as Walid’s killer. A hunt led to 13 of Sukhair’s associates, members of an al-Qaida sleeper cell suspected in scores of assassinations.
The next day, Ghazia al Jabouri said, she went to police headquarters and confronted Sukhair and the others before a group of senior officials and a television camera. She recalled Sukhair telling her that he had been paid $200 to murder her son.
“I took off my shoe and slapped him in the face,” she said.
The confrontation aired on national television, which at that time frequently broadcast the arrests and confessions of terrorism suspects to build popular support for the U.S.-installed transitional government.
Al-Qaida in Iraq’s first attempt at vengeance came about a month after the television broadcast. Ali tells the story:
“I was sitting outside the door of our house. Two men who’d gotten off a garbage truck to empty a garbage can pulled out guns and began firing. We had three machine guns in the house: one on the roof, one in the kitchen and one in the hall. My older brother, Oday, grabbed the one in the kitchen and fired. He killed them.”
“We fled the house the same day,” his mother said. “The Americans sealed off our neighborhood and took us by helicopter to the other side of the river, where we rented a house from a friend.” She paused to puff on a cigarette.
“Two days later,” she said, “a car bomb hit the house.”
Three months later, Oday died in a roadside bomb blast.
“It was directly aimed at him,” Jabouri said.
The seeming defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq during the American troop surge in 2007 brought relative safety. Until this summer, that is, when the group, now called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, came roaring back from its sanctuary in Syria to overrun Mosul, where it began hunting down and executing officials and members of the security force.
“I was alone at home. All the neighbors had fled. About one dozen Daash” — derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State — “fighters came in. Their faces were covered,” Jabouri said. “They asked me, ‘Where are your sons, Ali and Nimr?’ They knew their names.”
“They were outsiders. I looked at their clothes. They weren’t from Mosul. They were Arabs,” Jabouri continued. “At this point, I decided to leave the house.”
Ali, who had managed to escape to Dohuk, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, called a friend, who agreed to pick up Ali’s mother and drive her to join his wife and her family in Baghdad.
The Islamic State’s own strict ideology may have helped get Jabouri through the 220-mile journey.
“They’d ordered women to cover their faces,” she said, pulling her scarf over the lower half of her face. “Whenever I’d get to one of their checkpoints, I covered my face. When we finally reached a checkpoint with an Iraqi flag, I started crying.”
Reflecting on all she’s been through, Jabouri finds a little solace. “I am proud of my sons because of their bravery,” she said.
But she finds little else to be happy about.
“I haven’t had a good life. Just disaster after disaster,” said Jabouri. “Iraq is just like me.”