KIRKUK, Iraq – Like hundreds of elderly men and women from the Iraqi city of Mosul, Hajji Ahmed left in August to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Leaving the militant-held city comes at a high price. Many residents are now forced to give up the deed to their homes as collateral to ensure they return — a tactic the militant group uses to keep civilians from fleeing the city.
For four weeks, the septuagenarian and some 580 pilgrims from Mosul did their religious duty — each of them obtaining an official IS-stamped exit document and a discrete stamp in their Iraqi passports that reads "Nineveh," the province where Mosul is located, and the year according to the Islamic calendar: 1436. The Iraqi government permitted only those above age 60 to exit militant territory, escorting them by bus to Baghdad, where they then flew to Mecca.
But nearly two months later, the Mosuli hajjaj, as they are known in Arabic, are desperately trying to get home — blocked by Iraqi and Kurdish authorities near the northern city of Kirkuk who refuse to open a corridor back into militant-held territory.
"They didn't really give us an explanation," said Hajji Ahmed, who provided only his nickname and said he doesn't know his actual age. "They just told us to wait here. That was six days ago. I just want to go back to my home."
The group has been squatting at a dusty, fly-infested mosque ever since, with little food or medicine, and mounting fears for the fate of their families in Mosul and for their homes if they don't return.
"My daughter ... is worried about me and I am worried about her," said a woman who identified herself only as Oum Zamaa, or Zamaa's mother.
"We are so afraid that an operation to liberate Mosul will begin and we will be here," said Oum Hijray. "What if we are separated from our children? That would be a disaster."
Most of those who spoke to The Associated Press declined to provide their full names or offer details about their lives under the Islamic State group, visibly afraid for their safety and that of their families back home.
The extremist group has increasingly been implementing restrictions on travel outside the region; some officials and observers say they depend on the presence of civilians to protect them against airstrikes, while others point to the group's dependence on taxes from civilians in the city to support their internal economy.
Whatever the reason, most of the stranded pilgrims said they have accepted the new norm in Mosul, while sharing almost no opinions on the IS group itself.
"If we don't bother them, they don't bother us," said Hajji Mohammed, another pilgrim.
Tired and angry, dozens of the elderly hajjaj packed up early Thursday morning, bound for Baghdad. Those who had a little cash left pooled their money to rent cars and flee Kirkuk.
"This is inhumane. They've left us with no options but to help ourselves," said one man as he strapped his suitcase on top of a minibus. "I have six sons and two daughters all living in my house in Mosul and the deed is in the hands of (IS). I have to get back somehow," he added, his eyes filled with tears.
When asked his name, he replied: "Haven't I suffered enough?"
But their ordeal is far from over. Baghdad usually bars people from IS-territory from passing a certain point without permission out of fear that militant sympathizers may infiltrate the capital. The road is also fraught with danger as clashes continue between IS and security forces. Hajji Mohammed, who traveled solo to Mecca, said he's willing to take his chances. "My daughter lives in Baghdad so I'm going to try to go to her home. I have to try. It's better than sitting here."
Intense clashes are underway along the route between Kirkuk and Mosul as Iraqi and Kurdish forces fight to recapture territory. Operations to retake the biggest IS-held cities, including Mosul and Ramadi, have stalled, with U.S and Iraqi officials acknowledging the likelihood of a prolonged war against IS.
Iraqi government officials say allowing the Mosuli hajjaj to return home is a liability, and they are holding them in Kirkuk for their own good.
"It's a war zone and ... it requires a political and military decision to allow these people to go back," said Bashar al-Kiki, head of the Nineveh provincial council. "Everybody here, including the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, does not want to open a corridor with IS because then it could lead to other consequences, God forbid."
Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed to this report.