In the eyes of the Iraqi government, Najaah, a 4-month-old infant being rocked to sleep by her mother, does not exist.
Neither does the 2-year-old son of laborer Akram Taha. And dozens of couples standing near them are not legally married.
All of them were lined up in the drab beige hallways of a courthouse in this town outside Mosul last week, hoping to remedy a bureaucratic nightmare: Their birth and marriage certificates were issued by the Islamic State militant group and carry no legal weight in Iraq.
When Islamic State was ousted from Mosul’s eastern half, tens of thousands of Muslawis, as Mosul residents are known, were left to reintegrate into an Iraqi bureaucracy that was supplanted by the jihadists during their nearly three-year reign in the country’s second-largest city.
Islamic State maintains a grip on western Mosul, and security remains shaky in the eastern side of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River. The militants regularly dispatch grenade-dropping drones as well as suicide bombers. The shaky security situation has forced the government to open up a subsidiary of Mosul’s court system here in Hamdaniya, approximately 20 miles southeast of Mosul.
People come by the hundreds to this once elegant town, which, like Mosul’s eastern half, was only recently recaptured from Islamic State. They walk past devastated neighborhoods, forming a shambolic line as they squeeze through a pre-fabricated hut for a quick security check, then pass into the courthouse to start another step in the process of repairing lives long disrupted by Islamic State.
“We have plans to relocate to the presidential palace on the eastern side, but only when the security is up to the level we need,” said Judge Salem Mohammad Nouri, head of Mosul’s appeals court, in an interview in the third floor office of the court building.
Islamic State is alternatively known as ISIS, ISIL and its Arabic acronym Daesh.
Nouri’s office was large and complete with the traditional accouterments of high governmental officials in Iraq: plastic flowers, a fake Faberge egg and gilt-edged furniture. Still, he seemed almost embarrassed by the paucity of his surroundings, insisting that the court’s presence here was temporary.
He spoke wistfully of Mosul’s main courthouse, built in the 1950s on the city’s western bank. The militants, he said, blew it up a few weeks ago.
Mosul's various courts operate out of tiny rooms the size of broom closets. Electricity is provided by generators paid for out of the judges' salaries, and all face a tremendous backlog of cases and claims.
When Islamic State seized Mosul in mid-2014, it quickly took over the government’s bureaucracy.
“We always had to have [Islamic State] documents with us,” said Shaybaan Saadi, a former government employee waiting in the drab beige hallways of the Hamdaniya courthouse. “You even had to put lslamic State license plates on the car.”
The group issued marriage licenses, birth certificates, traffic tickets, leasing contracts — all part of an effort to show it was no longer an insurgency but a fully functioning state.
One effect of its exit means that couples married in the last three years in Mosul have to re-register their marriages.
“A Daesh contract is considered null, yes, but a marriage, even if it’s done by Daesh, is still a marriage,” said Nouri.
On a typical day last week, dozens of couples jostled in front of the door of a tiny office. When each couple’s turn came, they would walk in to stand before the judge. He would ask if each partner had married of his or her free will — a key detail, given reports of forced marriages under Islamic State. Two witnesses were needed to testify that the marriage was legal.
On the opposite end of the corridor, the infant Najaah’s mother, Marwa, leaned against the wall. Like several others interviewed, she refused to give her last name for fear of reprisals.
She was waiting to obtain a government-issued birth certificate that would allow her to add Najaah to the family’s ration card, which she could then use to purchase goods at a subsidized price.
Yet cases like these, said Judge Motaz Azem Mohammad, a boyish looking 40-year-old, were the easy ones.
“New marriages and new babies, this is not the issue. Our biggest problem is the loss of existing records, ” he said, as he fiddled with the controls of a space heater near his desk.
With the records destroyed in the wake of Islamic State’s stunning takeover of Mosul in mid-2014, the judges must assess the validity of contracts said to have been forged in the period before.
The court is also tasked with investigating claims of damage to property, as well as crimes, terrorism-related or otherwise, a challenging prospect in Mosul and its environs, which have been ravaged by three years of war.
The search for justice can be frustrating.
With the state’s coffers all but empty (a result of endemic corruption and deflated oil revenues), there is little hope of compensation for property loss.
And while the courts have agreed to investigate complaints of killings, including those by bombing or assassination, the search for culprits is difficult at best. The courts have been plagued by people making false accusations to exact revenge against rivals. And with two witnesses required to obtain an arrest warrant, it has been difficult to build cases even when the accusation is legitimate.
“People don’t have enough to eat these days. You can’t force someone to leave their job and come testify against someone else,” said criminal court Judge Mahdi Saleh.
Another problem, Saleh said, is that the system is overburdened, making something as simple as transporting a prisoner to trial a major logistical endeavor.
“We have a terrorism case, and the accused is in jail… but we don’t know where,” he said.
Finally, the work is dangerous. A judge who would give only his first name, Ibrahim, because of fear of reprisals, said that even before 2014, he was a target of death threats and multiple assassination attempts.
Even when all of Mosul is taken back from Islamic State, Ibrahim said, sleeper cells loyal to the extremist group will remain, and can be expected to undertake a wave of assassinations against the judiciary.
“Now, while we’re here, it’s OK,” he said, “but soon it will go back to how it was.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.