Throughout the past couple of years, we've heard about the thousands of people who have fled the horrors of war in the Middle East, Islamic State's dominance, and other unimaginable conflicts. But what about those who have been left behind?
For more than two years, ISIS was in control of Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq. Mosul is the country's second most populated hub and in June 2014 became the largest region controlled by the group. But in the autumn of 2016, an American-led coalition, the Iraqi army, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were able to start regaining control of the city, which stands near the border between Iraq and Syria.
Around this time, photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith was able to travel to the area surrounding the city with Oxfam in an effort to capture what the experience was like for women who lived under the group throughout this period. They're now free from ISIS' control, but many challenges still remain.
Trayler-Smith's work addresses many questions: What was it like to live under the tight rule of ISIS and to now be liberated? What was the magnitude of ISIS' presence, and how did it shape their lives for those two years? What about their families? And where do they go from here?
"When the forces first broke into Mosul and people were able to escape, the stories they told us were so surreal to me," she told Refinery29, adding, "[They told us] how nobody had been allowed a phone or a SIM card, and how people had been killed if they were found with either in their possession."
The women interviewed by Trayler-Smith shared stories of loss, fear for the future, and resilience — from those who lost their partners, to those who were determined to rebuild their lives just like they were before ISIS' arrival. But if there was a common thread, it was the sheer horror of it all.
"The story that really chilled me to the core was from a mother who told me how they’d had to stop their children from going to school so that they wouldn’t be brainwashed. And when I asked what she meant she said, 'You know, in math class, they were counting like two guns plus two guns equals four guns, and singing songs about killing people,'" Trayler-Smith said. "It just made me realise what these people have lived through for two years."
More than 300,000 people have fled Mosul since last autumn, according to the office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. The battle has lasted nine months, and the number of internally displaced people is expected to increase as the Iraqi forces regain control of the last sections of the city. Trayler-Smith emphasises that even though the majority of the city has been retrieved from ISIS' control, the women's journey is far from over.
The photographer said she wants people looking at her photos to see how many similarities exist between these women and any other person.
"What I felt after meeting and talking to all of the women I photographed is that they are no different to me or my friends," she said. "I hope people just pause to look at the pictures and see the women in them as just another human being. I hope they can make a connection with them like I did when I was there with them. Despite differences in culture and life experience we all have similar concerns: health, family, loved ones, security. None of the women I photographed want ISIS around."