Erbil, Iraq — Monaly Najeeb and the other young women were hiding under their beds when they heard the ISIS fighters enter their house. Machine gun fire had woken them up around 4 a.m. that morning, and they had spent hours huddling in fear, trying to keep quiet and silently praying that the militants wouldn’t enter their house as firefights continued right outside their door.
Now, as the men entered the kitchen that shared a wall with the room where she hid, all Monaly could do was hope that her cell phone wouldn’t make noise. The fighters were rummaging through the kitchen, eating, she thought, based on the noises. Soon, though, the militants left the kitchen and entered the room where Monaly and six other young women were hiding. An ISIS fighter than sat down, directly on top of the bed she hid underneath.
On Friday, ISIS militants launched a daring raid in the city of Kirkuk, located 90 miles from Mosul where coalition and Iraqi forces had just this week launched the biggest operation yet in the fight against ISIS. As ISIS began losing wide swathes of territory, they deployed a familiar tactic: focusing their attention on a more vulnerable area far from the main battles. Kirkuk, a bit far from Mosul but close enough to a smaller ISIS stronghold in the nearby city of Hawija, had been a target before for spectacular attacks.
ISIS fighters fanned out at different points across the city. Estimates put the number involved between 70 and 100, although Kirkuk governor Dr. Najmaldin Karim told local media that as of Sunday, 74 bodies of ISIS militants had been recovered.
Accounts differ of how the ISIS troops managed to sneak into the city. Some reports have pointed to sleeper cells, others tunnels, and yet others have claimed that they snuck in amongst internally displaced people seeking refuge. However they got in, they would unleash three days of violence on the people of Kirkuk, killing dozens, spreading out across the city, with one faction making their way to a series of university dorms sponsored by the Chaldean Church and provided for Christian students.
It wasn’t the first time Rand Leith, a 21-year-old studying medicine at the university, had gotten a little too close to ISIS. Originally from the Christian town of Qaraqosh, she had to flee when ISIS captured the town in August, 2014. (It was liberated over the weekend.) Last year, another ISIS raid happened near her. This time, she was in a house with 11 other female Christian students, one of three houses that ISIS fighters had taken up positions near.
When the gunfire started, it was still dark, and the girls huddled together, unsure of what was going on. As the sun rose, the sounds of clashes continued. That’s when Rand heard people walking near the house. She looked out the window, and saw a man in military fatigues jumping over a wall.
At first, she thought it was the military or police. She was about to call out for help, but something stopped here. “God closed my mouth, because right at that moment we realized it was ISIS,” she says.
They saw one fighter, and heard him talking to another. They heard them saying, “Allahu Akhbar,” or “God is Great.”
At 9 a.m., they got a call from the church housing coordinator, who told them to go upstairs and hide. At one point, the young women all grabbed kitchen knives and cleaning spray, anything they could use to defend themselves if the fighters came in.
Safe now after being freed only hours earlier, Rand smiles often, and said she was still in shock. She fidgets with her hair, pulled tight in a long braid, sitting on a sofa in the living room of her aunt’s home in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Pausing periodically to wipe her glasses, she says that her parents had left Iraq for France, and had tried to get her to leave with them, but she refused to leave because she wanted to finish her studies. At one point, during a lull in the fighting, she called her family to tell the she was safe, and not to worry.
At sunset, she said, the fighting intensified. The students could smell the gunpowder and smoke, and it was making some of them nauseous. “The guns were so loud and so close, it felt like they were in the room,” Rand tells The Daily Beast.
The coordinator then called, letting them know that military forces were on their way. Two ISIS fighters had holed up in an unfinished building adjacent to their yard. It would be morning until it was safe enough for the Iraqi army to come rescue them.
Monaly, in another house nearby with six female students, would have a much closer experience with ISIS. She discusses the events of the past few days calmly, sitting in her mother’s living room in Erbil, her two sisters nearby. Earlier that day, ISIS fighters had been closer to her than her family members were now.
As her mother serves pastries and coffee, a nearby television tuned to the Assyrian channel broadcast emotional video from that morning of Monaly and her fellow survivors post-rescue, arriving in vans to reunite with family members and friends, many in tears.
A recent graduate of the university who now served as a supervisor of sorts, she gathered the other six students when the gunfire started. “We went to a corridor where there were no windows and we sat there until the morning, but we didn’t feel entirely safe because we were right near the door,” she says, and so they eventually went and hid in a room under the stairs.
The sound of nearby clashes echoed throughout the day. Every once in a while, they cracked the door to circulate air. Someone had given Monaly’s phone number to police forces, and she communicated with them. At one point, they were told there might be a potential airstrike nearby, so they hid under beds in a reception area that had been converted into a bedroom and wrapped themselves in blankets to protect themselves from shattered glass and debris.
Hiding under the beds, they heard people entering the house. They heard them go into the kitchen nearby. Then they heard them enter their room. And then they sat on the bed, one of the militants sitting on the bed directly above Monaly.
Monaly has no explanation for why her and the girls weren’t seen. She said part of her thinks that maybe the fighters just didn’t want to deal with the young women as the battle raged.
“It was a miracle they didn’t see us,” she says. She doesn’t remember much, just that she kept hoping the cell phones wouldn’t make a sound. She does remember, though, that after a while, they heard what she thinks is a commander telling the men they should leave the house.
“When we heard him say this, we finally had some hope,” she says.
A number of fighters soon left, but an injured fighter stayed behind and went into the bathroom, where Monaly heard the water running. Monaly was still in communication with the police, who told the girls it was too unsafe for them to come in because of IEDs. She was told that the only way out was through the back door, and that each girl should leave the house one by one.
Monaly volunteered to be the first one out. “I was ready. Someone needed to go first,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking. I just went.”
She ran out the back door to a high wall, where a police officer helped her over, and the six other young women soon followed. “I felt like I was born again when the soldier picked me up,” she says.
Shortly after they escaped, the ISIS member in the bathroom detonated a suicide bomb.
Kirkuk’s governor, Najmaldin Karim, has since told local media that ISIS intended to take Assyrian students hostage. Monaly was lucky.
Asked how she thinks they were able to escape, Monaly’s mother, Layla Aziz, answers: “It was like a miracle, God’s hand helped them.”
And how did she feel about her daughter’s brush with death?
Layla Aziz smiles widely and simply answers: “You don’t understand.”