How an Iraqi Grandmother Saved Soldiers’ Lives and Inspired a Nation
It is a tradition among Arab tribes to have a nakhua, or title, for those who make the tribe proud. The nakhua of the al-Jabour tribe is “Akhu Hadla.” But maybe, after the courage shown by Aliyah Khalaf Saleh al-Jabouri, known as Umm Qusay, the new nakhua will be “Akhu Aliyah.” Umm Qusay is now a familiar name that has entered the hearts of the Iraqi people for helping to save the lives of more than 50 Iraqi Soldiers stranded in areas overrun by Daesh thugs. She is a woman with nerves of steel who refused to give in to sectarianism at a time when Iraq faced a dangerous slide into war and chaos that threatened to engulf the region. Bloodthirsty terrorists were murdering innocent people for the most trivial of reasons, but with her exceptional courage she protected the Soldiers she treated as guests. Her bravery helped restore a sense of national unity.
The al-Alam district is on the west bank of the Tigris River, which separates it from Tikrit and Baiji. Those areas have witnessed fierce battles, including the biggest massacre in Iraq’s history by Daesh at Camp Speicher, about 16 kilometers from al-Alam. The camp includes an Iraqi Air Force academy, so most of the victims were students, rather than combatants. This massacre was deeply painful for all Iraqis. Terrorists spread news of the massacre on social media to demonstrate the extent of their brutality. Over the course of several weeks, Umm Qusay saved Soldiers fleeing the massacre. They had ended up on the riverbank, and Daesh terrorists were searching for them like hyenas stalking prey. It wasn’t an easy decision for Umm Qusay to help them — she knew she would be risking her life and the lives of her children — but she believed she owed it to the young men’s mothers awaiting their return.
“Martyrs’ bodies were floating down the river, and I saw in them my husband and son, whom Daesh had recently killed,” Umm Qusay told Unipath. “I listened to the news coming from Speicher, Sharqat and Baiji, and it broke my heart that the blood of our youth was being spilled so brutally and that the scenes of slaughter were being published for bereaved mothers to see. Fear and anxiety filled the hearts of the people in the city. It was then that my children and I decided to save the Soldiers and help them cross the river.”
Umm Qusay praised the extraordinary courage of the people of al-Alam district, who resisted Daesh after the fall of cities around them and helped the besieged Soldiers cross the river. About 400 Soldiers were saved, including Air Force Academy students fleeing Camp Speicher.
“The people of al-Alam helped Soldiers and civilians flee across the river from Tikrit. The rest of the young men fired on Daesh to keep them from getting to the crossing point,” Umm Qusay said. “My sons fought courageously with the sons of al-Alam, and I sheltered troops in my home. I was alone with my daughters and grandchildren. I shared my loaf of bread with them, though we had so little to eat. My son Khalid brought the Soldiers from the point where they had crossed the river, and they stayed with us. We took them to Kirkuk, from which they went home to their families in Mosul, Dayali, Kirkuk, Baghdad and the South.”
Umm Qusay recalled the Soldiers who stayed with her but weren’t lucky enough to reach their families safely.
“Three young men came to us, very well-mannered, and stayed with us for a day. They thanked us for our hospitality but refused to stay longer, though we insisted that the roads weren’t safe. I learned later that they never made it home to their families. I regret that I didn’t force them to stay.”
The people of al-Alam saved the Soldiers who crossed the riverbank, but soon the conditions worsened and the roads were cut off by the terrorists. It was then that Umm Qusay received a call that help was needed beyond the district.
“Abu Hamed, one of the sons of our general and a well-known figure in the al-Hajjaj district — about 40 kilometers south of al-Alam — reached out to us,” she said. “He said that Daesh controlled their district and that he had found six Soldiers who needed to get out before they were exposed. I called my nephew, who had a car, and I asked my daughter and son, Khalid, to go get the Soldiers. I sent my daughter with them to confuse Daesh and make them think this was just a family driving together. I remember when Khalid looked at me in fear, saying: ‘Mother, how can I go out from here, when our village is surrounded by Daesh? How can I risk the life of my sister, a young girl not yet 20?’ But I insisted that he take his sister with him, and I told him that all of these Soldiers had mothers crying and praying for their sons’ safety, day and night. When they arrived in the area, Daesh was close by, and my son had to leave his sister and swim across the river to bring the Soldiers across by canoe. During the crossing, Abu Hamed’s son was martyred, and water began to sweep the Soldiers back toward Daesh territory. The Soldiers begged Khalid to help them. He was torn between saving them, staying with Abu Hamed, and looking for his sister on the other side of the river as Daesh was closing in. Abu Hamed snapped into action and told Khalid, ‘My son has been martyred to save these sons of the South, and we must finish what he started.’ We must not forget Abu Hamed’s courage. Thank God, Khalid and his sister managed to get the Soldiers home safely.”
Umm Qusay recalled the six Soldiers’ condition as they entered her house.
“They were full of panic, and their faces looked like the faces of the dead,” she said. “Their clothes were covered in mud, and their torn shoes demonstrated the roughness of the roads and marshes they had traveled to reach a safe haven. Despite my grieving for my son and husband, and my fear that Daesh would discover them in my house, I felt an extraordinary power in my body and the determination of a woman who was not afraid to protect them. I don’t know where this sense of purpose and determination came from, but I feel that God planted this power inside me to ward off fear. I asked Khalid to set up the bathroom for them and give them his and his brother’s clothes while I prepared a meal for them. I sat and ate with them.”
Fear filled narrow rural roads, and the sound of gunfire echoed through the night as Daesh terrorists infiltrated the town to send spies to assassinate those who rejected their sick ideology. Umm Qusay guarded the young men, trying to be strong in front of them.
“When I was alone, I had fears about their fate,” she said. “I remembered my husband and son, and I cried bitterly, but when I entered the room where our guests were staying, I stiffened my resolve and smiled for them. I was sitting up all night with my rifle by my side to guard them because I was responsible for their safety, and I feared for them greatly. When I went to check on them at night, I found them sleeping without covers. I don’t know whether they thought that the covers might impede their escape in the event of any danger. They would go to sleep terrified, and when they saw my smile they would return to sleep.”
Umm Qusay recalled the courage of the village’s men in those difficult circumstances and how they were fighting on multiple fronts: from the heights of the Hamrin mountain ridge to the al-Fathah village, and to the riverbank to stop Daesh gangs from entering their village.
“The fierceness of the battles kept the men busy, but my brother and cousin, Sheikh Khamis al-Jabara, who were checking on the residents, especially at my house, were aware of the Soldiers’ presence. Sheikh Khamis told me, ‘I came to raise your morale, and I hope you are well.’ Although I was crushed inside, I smiled at him and told him my spirits were high. I told him I was happy to save my guests and take care of them. He would visit again and again to reassure me and ask if I needed anything.”
Daesh closed in on al-Alam because it was an important supply hub between the Hamrin mountain range and Tikrit. In addition, there was a feud between Daesh and the townspeople for their past refusal to be dragged into sectarian fighting by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s gangs.
“After 15 days of battles and sieges against the district by Daesh’s gangs, they had the area in their grip. The village fighters negotiated with Daesh to end the fight and allow them to enter; in return, the people would be allowed to leave. That sad night, al-Alam entered Daesh’s clutches. The situation in the town grew more and more desperate, and there remained no hope of salvation. The next day, Daesh was patrolling among the homes with their informants and fighters, searching for those who resisted them and helped Soldiers escape. They began to demolish homes and detain people for unknown reasons, which spawned confusion and chaos. I didn’t know what to do or where to hide the young men.”
Daesh began to conduct investigations and searches of the city, and Umm Qusay and her sons decided to fight to the end instead of succumbing to the shame of handing over the young men to Daesh.
“I sent my young grandchildren out to play in front of the home, but they were watching the street to alert me if Daesh would suddenly approach. The Soldiers asked me to leave my home so that we wouldn’t be killed because of them, but I said I would rather die with them than live with the shame and regret that would haunt us if we gave up our guests out of fear of Daesh gangs. I told them, in the presence of my children, that [my sons] had rifles and I had two rifles. I gave them one and kept one for myself. We decided that we would fight to the death if Daesh gangs raided our home.”
She didn’t lose hope of salvation or of saving the Soldiers, instead insisting on continuing to search for a way to save them. She believed that a miracle might save the young men.
“I tried to find someone who could smuggle us as a family outside al-Alam, and through the grapevine, we came up with a person who said he could drive us to Samarra. He asked for the names and number of people he’d be driving, and I told him my sons and I wanted to leave, afraid for our family’s safety. His condition was that we would go in two cars — me in one car and my sons in another. He argued that this would raise fewer suspicions, but I didn’t trust him. I pretended to agree to his conditions. I told him we would meet him the next day at 7 a.m. But I was sure that it was a trap and he was trying to take the young men from me to Daesh. I called someone else who had a four-wheel drive and, miraculously, he was about to travel in that moment.”
She said the Soldiers climbed into the car that afternoon with her family, and they headed down a dangerous road full of terrorists.
“So as not to raise suspicions at Daesh checkpoints along the way, I took my daughter, granddaughters and son’s wife with me as our family. I put the women close to the windows to conceal the young men. During the young men’s stay with us, my children had created fake IDs for them as university students with my sons’ names. We thought they may prove beneficial at some point and, indeed, that day had come. We had taught them the names of the daughters of the family and we agreed on the answers to any questions Daesh might ask along the way. We started our journey at noon. The car slowly made its way through the alleys of al-Alam that I knew so well, but that day, everything looked strange to me. The terrorists’ wretched faces, strange clothes and sullen expressions repulsed me. They didn’t resemble Iraqis in appearance or action, and it was as if they had landed from another planet. Half a kilometer from our house, at the first checkpoint, one of the terrorists shouted at us and pointed his weapon at us to stop. I lowered the window calmly and I said, ‘God will bring you victory, my children.’ One of them quickly replied ‘God be with you.’ This was the first miracle, because people in the area know my sons’ faces well. I don’t want to hide the fact that we were very frightened, and that I put my daughters’ lives and honor in grave danger on this journey, in which we had minimal hope of survival. But I believed that we were not alone on this journey, but rather that God and the mothers’ prayers were with us. After we made it through the checkpoint, there was a deadly silence in the car. I tried to break the silence by cursing Daesh and laughing loudly. I turned my face toward the young Soldiers, and they returned my laugh, mixed with anxiety and fear. This scene was repeated several times during our trip, and after we had passed each checkpoint, we read the Quran and prayed.”
The journey did not pass without surprises that endangered the group’s lives. After crossing from Daesh-controlled areas into the first peshmerga-controlled area at the entrance to Kirkuk, the Soldiers experienced what they never expected.
“After our crossing of Daesh-controlled areas, we felt safe, and we sat naturally as if we were a displaced family from a Daesh area,” Umm Qusay said. “Peshmerga Soldiers were very meticulous and professional in their examination and scrutiny. One of their men asked one of our young men: ‘What is your name?’ But Ali Hadi — overwhelmed by everything he had gone through — did not know the answer! My daughter whispered to him to say, ‘Abdullah Ismail Abdullah,’ but the second question was, ‘What year are you in university?’ and we all forgot the answer. This aroused the Soldier’s suspicions, and he cried out that this identification was forged. He wanted to take Ali out of the car and refuse his entry into Kirkuk, forcing him to return to Daesh-controlled areas. Then I purposely hit my head on the door of the car and started bleeding, and my daughters started screaming and wailing. The officer asked what had happened. My daughter replied that my blood sugar was too high and caused me to hit my head on the door. The peshmerga officer gave us back the ID and told Ali, ‘If your identity is forged, they will catch you inside Kirkuk. Hurry up and take your mother to the hospital now!’”
The distance between al-Alam and the borders of Kirkuk province is an hour and a half by car. Perhaps that day, with the frequent stops, it took two hours. But for Umm Qusay and those riding with her, it was the longest journey of their lives.
“After we arrived in Kirkuk, the sun was beginning to set, and the last cars had already left for Baghdad, with no more available until the next morning. We weren’t sure where to stay in Kirkuk. I couldn’t leave the young men alone there, as I was afraid for them. I called my Turkmen friend in Kirkuk, told her the details of our story, and asked her for help. She is a true friend, and she welcomed us. She gave the Soldiers a room in her house and arranged for a driver she knew and trusted to take them to Baghdad in the morning. I left them with her and returned to al-Alam.”
For her bravery, Umm Qusay was honored with the National Medal by the Iraqi government. She was also one of 10 women in the world to receive the 2018 International Women of Courage Award, given by U.S. First lady Melania Trump. When asked to recall those harrowing days, Umm Qusay smiles and explains her actions from a national and humanitarian standpoint.
“I am proud that I was able to save these young men and that I could prove to the world that Iraqis love one another no matter their sect or ethnicity. When we are outside Iraq, my passport says that I am Iraqi, without mentioning religion, ethnicity or sect. We are proud to belong to a nation that has long been the cradle of civilization. I harbored in my house a Yazidi and I didn’t know he was Yazidi; I sheltered a Christian and a Muslim without asking their religions. All I knew was that they were sons of my people and needed my help. It’s true that my house was small, but my heart was big enough for all of them.”
Umm Qusay’s story spread far and wide among Iraq people, and became a story for women and men to share with pride.
“After the battles had ended and cities were liberated, the young men visited me at my home,” she said. “I went out to greet them, tears pouring down my face in relief at seeing them safe. I felt that my son, Qusay, and my husband, whom Daesh killed, had come back to visit me. I felt that I had left my sons for more than a year, and today they had returned to kiss me. I hope that every Iraqi mother can feel as I felt if she has a son or husband. Since my return after the liberation of al-Alam, I go every Friday morning to visit the site of the Speicher massacre, and I lay flowers and read the Fatiha prayer for their pure souls. I know that their mothers far away are not able to visit them, so I will play the role of every affectionate mother. They are our sons, they held our heads high and preserved the honor of Iraq.”