Terrified Christian student texted mother as she hid under bed: ‘I am trapped in a house with Islamic State fighters’
She sent just one text to her mother: “I am trapped in a house with Islamic State fighters. Do not call me.”
Off and on for eight hours, Monaly Atalla and six college roommates hid under their beds in their darkened house as an elite cadre of Islamic State fighters came and went during a pitched battle to take over the city of Kirkuk late last month.
As the students lay beneath the narrow single beds, hidden by nothing but a thin sheet, the militants sat on the mattresses above. The seven women listened to their conversations and heard them praying in other rooms. They felt their presence, the weight of their bodies atop the beds, the smell of their sweat and blood.
Two gunmen who passed through the bedroom were seriously wounded by the fierce firefights just outside. One was shot in the stomach, they believed, the other in the leg.
The students could hear the wounded men’s sharp laboured breaths.
At one point, one of the fighters shifted his body and his boot touched Atalla’s shoulder.
“I thought at that the moment, this is it,” she said.
As she recalled her story, she sat in another house filled with people displaced by the turmoil, dressed in a pair of blue yoga pants and pink flip-flops. She twisted a silver crucifix hanging from a necklace.
All seven of the young women in the house, ages 20 to 23, are Christians who had fled Mosul and the nearby town of Qaraqosh more than two years ago when the Islamic State seized control of the region.
The Islamic State’s surprise attack against the oil-rich Kirkuk, a three-hour drive southeast of Mosul, began before dawn on October 21, when a couple hundred militants, who were armed with grenades and suicide vests, entered the city and made a dash for the city hall. Handfuls of the last Islamic State fighters from that operation are still being pursued and killed.
The students, who were attending a university in Kirkuk, were living down the street from the scene of the heaviest fighting. Islamic State snipers took up positions on top of nearby buildings. Militants were firing mortar shells from their back yard.
There were some 500 students living in houses throughout Kirkuk who were being housed by the Chaldean Catholic diocese. The students are of many faiths: Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, Mandeans.
When the fighting began in Kirkuk, security forces rushed to evacuate some, while telling others to shelter in place, that it was too dangerous for them to make a run for it or too risky for forces to come and rescue them.
Atalla said they first hid in a closet and used laptops to recharge their mobile phones. Then they heard voices outside, glass breaking at the kitchen door, then men in the house, eating and talking. Those fighters left.
The students grabbed three knives from the kitchen and took refuge under the beds around 4pm. They stayed there until they fled through the back yard and over the back wall after midnight, rescued by Kirkuk emergency police units.
Atalla said they kept perfectly still and mouthed prayers when the fighters were in their room. One by one, their cellphone batteries died.
Sister Yomna, who lives in a convent across the street, said that she and other nuns saw Islamic State fighters jump over the walls of the student house.
“We prayed for them,” Yomna said.
A Kirkuk police officer who rescued the nuns the next day told Yomna that the Islamic State gunmen would have beheaded the students if they had been discovered, she said.
Atalla said she spoke with a priest who told her to stay quiet and not leave the house. She sent texts to a security contact and to Emad Matti, known to everyone as Abu Durayd, who served as the coordinator for the student housing.
Abu Durayd promised he would get them out.
The fighters came and went from the room. At one point, they closed the door and locked it. But they returned. When the women thought no one was in the room, they whispered to one another. Once, Atalla said she was convinced one of the fighters was laying on the bed.
She very slowly pressed her hand against the mattresses and tried to lift it. No one was there.
Around midnight, Abu Durayd instructed them to open the back door of the house and run, one by one, toward the wall. They would see the light of his mobile phone. Kirkuk police officers flanked him. The students bolted and were pulled over the wall.
A few hours later, there was a large explosion in the house. Inside were four dead fighters. One of them had detonated his suicide belt, possibly by accident.
That room - next to the bedroom where the students had hid - was a wreck, flecked with blood and flesh.
Yousif Thomas Mirkis, the archbishop of Kirkuk, called the survival of the students “a miracle.”
Atalla said the other students were trying to collect themselves. They had fled from ISIS two years ago only to have ISIS find them again.
“They were all very strong women,” Atalla said of her friends. But she said they were not sure what they would do now.