Iraq call-in show offers glimpses of hope to those trapped in ISIL-held Mosul

Call-in shows like Bakr Mahmoud Mahdi’s have been providing a rare line of communication for some of the estimated 1 million people still living in ISIL’s last urban bastion in Iraq.

Bakr Mahmoud Mahdi, a presenter at the private Nineveh TV talking to callers on his live studio show, in Erbil, Iraq, which offers those outside glimpses of what is happening in ISIL-held Mosul, and also brings hope and encouragement to those still trapped in Iraq's second largest city. Fay Abuelgasim/AP Photo
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ERBIL // As evening approaches in Iraq's northern city of Erbil, TV presenter Bakr Mahmoud Mahdi prepares to go live with a show called Freedom Studio, which he says allows victims of war to vent.

His callers — and there have been fewer of them lately — are civilians living inside the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest, who describe what life is like under the rule of ISIL.

On a recent broadcast, a woman who identified herself as Umm Nour called in from Mosul.

“God willing there isn’t a lot left and I hope that the watchers can pray for those inside Mosul to overcome Daesh,” she said. Most of the other callers dial in to complain about life under ISIL rule, Mahdi said.

“There is a crisis in terms of food supply, there is a fuel crisis and there is a crisis in the inhumane way the Daesh thugs treat the people of Mosul,” he said.

Multiple call-in shows like Mahdi’s have been providing a rare line of communication for some of the estimated 1 million people still living in ISIL’s last urban bastion in Iraq. Now as Iraqi forces push closer and the militants begin enforcing a ban on phones and the internet, those voices from inside Mosul are starting to fall silent.

“This programme is like a breath of fresh air for the families of Nineveh,” he said, referring to the province that contains Mosul. “Through it they can call and through it the families who are trapped in Nineveh can give news to those who are displaced and vice versa.”

The show’s channel, the private Nineveh TV, opened in 2013 and has been airing several such shows each day. Mahdi said his broadcasts can also be viewed inside Mosul, giving residents a taste of the outside world.

Mahdi usually goes from one phone call to another very quickly, giving words of encouragement to those calling in. On average he gets about 90 calls during each two-hour show.

He himself is from Ramadi and can empathise with the callers’ struggles since he has been through it himself, he said.

Ramadi was freed from ISIL militants earlier this year.

While the show receives callers from inside Mosul, those numbers have started to drop because of harsh punishment by ISIL. On a recent day, most callers were displaced people from Mosul who wanted to send messages of hope to those trapped in the city. There were also a lot of praise for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

One displaced resident, who identified himself as Salah, said he wanted to send a message to his family still there.

“I want to tell the families in Nineveh that we are coming to save you from these Daesh thugs,” he said. “We are fighting against criminals. We are coming for you.”

Mosul has been under ISIL rule for more than two years. The fight to retake it is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraq’s military.

As paranoia spreads among the extremist fighters holding out inside the city and facing an all-out assault backed by sophisticated US weaponry, Mahdi said they have begun to severely punish anyone found to have a cell phone or internet connection, seeing them as possibly colluding with the enemy.

The battle picked up momentum over the weekend, with state-sanctioned Shiite militias joining the offensive to the west of the city as part of a plan to encircle the area and cut supply lines from neighbouring Syria.

Meanwhile, other Iraqi forces, aided by US-led air strikes and heavy artillery, drove ISIL from the town of Shura, south of Mosul, where the militants had rounded up civilians to be used as human shields.

Two weeks into the offensive, most of the fighting is still taking place in towns and villages far from Mosul’s outskirts. With the entire operation expected to take weeks, if not months, thirst for news from inside the city has grown.

Another caller, Abu Barek, urged his family to be patient.

“If you hear my voice, there is not a lot left. Please stay home until freedom comes.”

* Associated Press