Radio station offers solace in Mosul

By William Booth, Aaso Ameen Shwan

Iraqi troops drive through the dust as they enter Mosul yesterday as they battle to take the city from Isis. Picture / AP
Iraqi troops drive through the dust as they enter Mosul yesterday as they battle to take the city from Isis. Picture / AP

The listeners who call in to Radio Alghad are typical of talk radio audiences around the world. It's complain, complain. Except the callers to Radio Tomorrow are in the Isis-controlled city of Mosul, and they don't want to yak about traffic or sports.

They want to unload on suicide bombers and errant airstrikes, on the lack of food and medicine. They have questions about when to wave white flags and what to do with bodies in the rubble.

"Shrapnel hit the tanks on the rooftop," a caller named Hasan told FM-95.5 the other day. "We have lost all water we have saved."

On calls made from the frontlines in Mosul, listeners to Radio Alghad can hear mortar rounds falling as the Government battles to retake the city. They can hear windows rattle, bursts of gunfire, children crying in a backroom.

"There is a difference between hearing about the crimes and seeing them with your eyes," another caller told one of the station's hosts.

She begged Iraqi forces to hurry to recapture the city. Many of her neighbours still support the Isis (Islamic State), she said. "So it's hard to tell who is a friend and who is an enemy."

The callers often speak in rushed whispers.

A cellphone, even a SIM card hidden in a pocket or purse, can be a death sentence in Mosul, where Isis militants have ordered "collaborators and spies" to be summarily executed.

The station's founder is a 30-something tech entrepreneur who calls himself "Mohammad of Mosul" in interviews because he does not want to be targeted by the Isis or its supporters. He also insists on keeping the location of his station and most of the names of its hosts secret. He is concerned about car bombs. He will allow a reporter only to say the operation is in the Kurdish area of Iraq.

On a recent evening, during one of four call-in shows hosted each day, a dozen people from Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages telephoned the station and went live on-air.

Callers are told to use an alias. So instead of "Sleepless in Seattle", the callers identify themselves as with monikers like "Tear of an Oppressed", "Prisoner of Memories" and others such as "Mother of Ali" or "Son of Mosul". The guests are also warned not to mention their exact location, both for their own protection and to foil intelligence-gathering by Isis militants, who monitor the radio station.

The first call of the evening went like this:

Caller: As-salamu alaykum!

Host: Peace to you, Son of Mosul! Where are you calling from?

Caller: From the left side [meaning the east side of the Tigris River in Mosul], from the liberated areas.

Host: Inshallah, the whole of Mosul gets liberated, we want to hear soon that Mosul has completely been liberated.

Caller: It will be liberated by the help of God. What is left for Daesh [the Arabic acronym used instead of Isis]? Only to hide behind women? They protect themselves by women!

Host: Inshallah, God will give revenge for you, Son of Mosul, and for all the oppressed people in Mosul. Go ahead, tell me about the situation on the left side.

Caller: I only want to say one thing, do you know what? In Hay Al-Samah the people are still under the destroyed houses, the houses have collapsed on top of them ...

Radio Alghad went on the air in Marchlast year. Mohammad said he decided Mosul needed an alternative radio station after watching how Isis operated.

"Their social media skills are high. Their psychologists are impressive," he said.

"They get a lot of hits."

Isis' videos - such as the infamous "Clash of Swords" series - instilled fear among Iraqi defenders and diminished their will to fight.

In 2014, Isis took Mosul, then a city of about 2 million, in a couple of days as the Iraqi security forces retreated.

"Then I realised this is a media war," the Alghad director said.

Isis has its own radio station operating in Mosul, Radio al-Bayan 92.5 FM.

"They use their transmitters to jam us - and we now use our transmitters to jam them," Mohammad said. "We're both on each other's frequencies all the time."

In the frequency wars, the anti-Isis station now operates seven transmitters.

Before the Government's offensive to recapture Mosul began early last month, hot topics on the call-in shows were Isis' bans on smoking, cellphones and satellite dishes. Men complained about being forced to grow beards, and the women, about full-face veils.

They also complained about taxes, arrests and street executions.

Now Radio Alghad includes public-service messages, warning listeners to shelter inside interior rooms during bombardment and to open windows to relieve the pressure so the glass doesn't implode.

On a normal day, about 80 callers go live on-air, most of them from Mosul.

In recent days, many callers have said they are being pounded both by Isis mortars and shelling from Iraqi forces. They are pleading for the Iraqi army to be careful.

A caller, "Mother of Ali" said: "Honestly, we can't stand the bombings anymore, but we have no choice but to thank God and be more patient."

Another caller complained that "Daesh launches one or two rockets, but the Iraqi army bombing is very intense, the area is full of civilian families and they get hurt, so through your station I would like to ask them to decrease the bombings and to be more accurate".

The host thanks his callers - but when they begin to criticise the Iraqi army more than tIsis, he brings the conversation to a polite close.

On occasion, Radio Alghad has allowed suspected Isis supporters to speak on-air. They complain of distortions and lies.

Mohammad, the station director, recalled one conversation with an Isis fan who said, "The people can leave Mosul at any time," and the host replied, "Okay, let them go."

"If you live in Mosul, you know this is not true. You know if the gates to the city were open for an hour, Mosul would be empty."

- Washington Post

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