At Fatima and Ragda’s beauty salon in Mosul, northern Iraq, a haircut cost £8. But if the two sisters had been caught by the Isis guards patrolling the streets outside their home, they would have paid with their lives.
For two years the pair operated the salon from their parents’ house, styling hair, threading eyebrows and painting nails — under the noses of the militants, who considered beauty treatments a heresy.
Customers arrived wearing face veils and abayas — black robes that cover the entire body — but once inside, they cast off the coverings to reveal jeans and T-shirts. As the women drank tea, they would gossip about clothes, boyfriends and the dangers of Isis checkpoints.
Last week civilians began to flood out from the first of the city’s neighbourhoods to be liberated by the Iraqi army with tales of two years of life under the jihadist group’s rule. Almost everyone had a story of furtive resistance.
“A week ago Isis came to our house and searched everywhere for contraband,” said Fatima, 16, as she pulled back her veil. “But I hid all the make-up in a box. They didn’t look.”
Her sister Ragda, 20, whose leopard-print dress peeked out from under her abaya, laughed at her nonchalance. “Of course we were scared. Everyone hated Isis; we just all found ways to survive.”
The sisters, who come from Gogjali, a newly freed suburb of Mosul, shed layers of black fabric as they walked. When they arrived at the displaced people’s camp, they giggled, they would burn it all.
At the camp, hundreds of families were being welcomed. The boom of artillery shook the ground from less than a mile away as more groups approached. The displaced waved white flags; many of the women were noticeably pale.
“It’s the first time I’ve left the house in two years,” said Ala, 15. “I can’t believe I’m feeling the sun on my face.”
Like many young women in Mosul, Ala was kept at home by her parents, who feared she would be claimed as an Isis bride. She kept her face veiled while cleaning the house in case someone caught a glimpse through the door.
“All I want to do is go back to school,” she said, carefully enunciating the words in English. “I didn’t forget my lessons.”
Alone in her room, she would study English, maths and science, knowing that she faced a beating — or worse — should she be caught.
Abu Abdullah, a Kurdish intelligence officer, also lived under Isis. He laughed as he described sending a constant stream of information about the group to his employers.
“I dressed in a long robe and grew my beard,” he said. “The fighters would walk past me on the street and greet me like I was a sheikh. I became close to them, and I took their information.”
With up to 5,000 of its fighters digging themselves in on the western side of Mosul, Isis looks likely to stage a last stand — using remaining civilians as human shields. The UN believes the group is seizing boys as young as nine to fight on its behalf.
The relief felt by those getting out was palpable. One old man, skipping down the road, amused himself by cursing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader.
Baghdadi’s whereabouts are unknown, although he is thought to be in hiding in Iraq. Last week, a recording was released in which he urged his followers to continue the fight against the “enemy”.
The old man’s wife and daughter screamed in fear at the mention of Baghdadi.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured them, spreading his arms wide. “We’re free. We can say what we want. Go to hell, Baghdadi.”