Makhmour, Iraq — Most people today fear returning to Makhmour, a village on the sparse Nineveh prairie where Kurdish forces, working with U.S. air cover and a local militia, beat back maniacal jihadis only seven weeks ago. Yet those brave or foolish or desperate few who today inhabit this silo-shadowed ghost town have a new local legend: Hossien Hainy Ahmad, the old man who napped through the Islamic State siege.
I meet this boisterous character on a sunny afternoon in September. “American!” he shouts at me. “The U.S. is our friend because they shoot ISIS! Boom! Boom! Boom!” he yells, switching to Kurdish. “Sit down, little sister!” he says in broken English, gesturing to his now infamous bed. “Sit down, La Mujer!” Out of his great love for Fidel Castro and cigars, he later tells me through a translator, he learned a few Spanish phrases alongside his English ones.
Hainy Ahmad was going about his routine on August 7 — visiting friends, cooking food, praying at the mosque — when the Kurdish peshmerga forces called his village, reporting that the Islamic State had amassed near the town, approaching from the grey silos nearby.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t hear any shooting,’” Hainy Ahmad recalls. “There’s no sound of fighting, but the peshmerga say, ‘Just go.’ A friend called me, too, telling me to leave the city. I told him, ‘No, I’m going to bed. I hear nothing.’”
And that’s just what he did, after eating and watching a famous Egyptian love-story movie, his noisy air-conditioner rattling in the background as he napped the afternoon away.
He awoke in time for evening prayers, though he expected the mosque had canceled them because of the Islamic State scare, he tells me. But as he walked to his yard, he heard the call for prayer sound across town. A few figures stood in the distance — probably peshmerga, he assumed — and so he stepped out onto the street to head to the mosque.
“Hands up!” Hainy Ahmad heard in Arabic. He saw a gun, and at the other end of it stood a bulky man with long hair, Afghani-style garb, and a lot of questions. Was Hainy Ahmad Peshmerga? “No,” he replied. Was Hainy Ahmad a fan of the Kurdish politician Barzani? “No, I’m just a civil guy going to pray,” he answered. What did Hainy Ahmad do? “I’m a simple watch fixer,” he said. But how could the jihadi know he was telling the truth?
“I told him, ‘Do you want to see my shop? It’s my shop, and [it’s just around the corner]. I fix watches, and if you don’t believe me, here are my keys,’” Hainy Ahmad says. “I am very lucky,” he adds, “because my shop was very close.”
The terrorist followed him, his gun still raised. Jittery, Hainy Ahmad unlocked his shop and stepped inside. On the wall, he had hung a photo of himself as a young man, his dark hair grown out past his shoulders, gazing away from the camera, his serious mouth framed by a goatee. With a light blue velvet background, it looks like it could have been taken in a Sears studio or an American elementary school on picture day.
“The ISIS man asked, ‘Who is this monster?’ I told him, ‘It is me, when I am young. See? I am the same as you.’”
The jihadi, no doubt as impressed with Hainy Ahmad’s righteous hair in the photo as he was befuddled by the eccentric watch repairman in front of him, decided the old man was all right; he looked like maybe he was a radical, too, at least in his youth.
Together, the Islamic State terrorist and Hainy Ahmad made their way to the mosque, walking past gun-mounted cars, mortars, and militants with weapons and Afghani attire. Inside the mosque, 25 men — “same clothes, same style” — had gathered, the old man says. An Islamic State religious official questioned Hainy Ahmad, too, but his jihadi escort “told the emir I was just a poor man from this city,” he tells me.
The Islamic State emir asked Hainy Ahmad if he knew where the electric generator for the mosque was. As luck had it, he did, so he flipped it on for them. The emir wanted to know whether Hainy Ahmad had a mobile phone; the Islamic State routinely collects them and searches through their messages and photos when they conquer a town.
“I dropped it in the toilet just two days ago,” Hainy Ahmad lied, relieved that he had turned it on silent that day before slipping it into his pocket. Hopefully they wouldn’t search him, he says he thought.
Then, with the lights bearing down, Hainy Ahmad uneasily began praying alongside dozens of Islamic State jihadis, carefully following ritual while glancing around. “I saw a lot of different guns, and I said to myself, ‘If they try to kill me, I’ll grab a gun and start shooting them.’”
But it didn’t come to that. Instead, the emir instructed his men not to harm the simple watch repairman, cautioning Hainy Ahmad to go home and stay at home. This was war, the Islamic State emir said, a dangerous time.
On the unnerving walk home alone, Hainy Ahmad tells me, he heard voices echoing “God be with you” through the streets. When he finally arrived, he shut the door, sat on his bed in the dark, and thanked God for letting him survive the evening.
He waited there alone in the dark for three days, contemplating whether he should flee, venture out into the streets, or stay put in his home. The risk of any of those options was that “they may kill me,” he concluded. “It was bad times.”
But Hainy Ahmad’s luck held, and on August 10 the peshmerga launched its counter-attack against the Islamic State. Still holed up at home, Hainy Ahmad could hear bullets rattling against his water tank outside during heavy shooting. When the bombs began, he says, he realized that staying inside was as risky as leaving. He walked to the door, peeked outside, lost his nerve, and sat back down until he mustered his courage once again.
“I was very afraid,” he tells me. “But I [finally] thought I could not accept this situation. I will go out, and if I die, that’s okay.”
Shouts in Kurdish, the best sound in the world at that moment, greeted Hainy Ahmad. Pershmerga stood nearby, fully armed, their guns raised. Hainy Ahmad rushed them anyway, smiling from ear to ear, kissing and hugging them. He had survived.
It’s worth saying that only the bare bones of Hainy Ahmad’s story are verifiable: Everyone in Makhmour knows the old man went to sleep before the Islamic State invaded the city, and everyone knows he came out alive. He has repeated his story several times consistently, I hear. The corresponding jihadis, of course, could not be reached for comment.
But in a nation where almost all stories end in displacement, dismemberment, or death, hopelessness prevails — so oddball tales with happy endings gain outsized prominence, even if in possibly embellished form. Take it or leave it, Hossien Hainy Ahmad lived to tell this tale.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.