Body bags in the boot: terror and destruction in Mosul

The liberation of the Iraqi city from Islamic State this week came at a terrible cost to Mosul and its people


In more than 30 years of journalism, it was the most bizarre journey I had ever set out on. Here we were, driving through the bomb-blasted narrow streets of the old city in Mosul, making a delivery of a boot full of body bags on behalf of a nearby field hospital. The mortars and gunfire of the front line were 500m away and we were trying to make it to the site of an air strike where a reported 20 people had been killed the previous day.

The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared the final liberation of the country’s second-biggest city this week, but that victory over Islamic State has come at a terrible cost. Untold thousands have been killed, the city is utterly destroyed and, as we found that day, we might never know what the actual human cost has been.

With a French and an English colleague I was at a field hospital about a kilometre from the front. It was set up in a bombed-out mosque by a tiny US aid agency, which was working in conjunction with the Iraqi army. A group of neighbours and relatives of those killed in the air strike turned up looking for body bags so they could bury the dead, and they told us what had happened.

Families and neighbours had gathered in the basement of a house for protection as the front line with Islamic State, also known as Isis, approached, when the house was hit by an air strike. It was a story we were to hear again and again.

As those people in the hospital were telling us what had happened, the Iraqi military commander of the unit was becoming increasingly agitated. He stopped the interview.

“Why don’t you report the crimes of Daesh [Islamic State],” he said to me as he sent the group away. Later, he said they had not been relatives, just people from the neighbourhood, who didn’t know what had happened, and anyway it hadn’t been an air strike, it was Islamic State.

We decided to check for ourselves and someone managed to get a dozen body bags, which were going to be our passport through checkpoints along the 1km journey.

We never made it, because despite welcoming media to witness and report on their battle in Mosul, despite being generous with their hospitality and their protection, there are two things the Iraqi authorities did not want reported: the number of civilians killed by coalition air strikes; and. even more importantly for them, the number of military casualties. The first is likely to be very high, the second astronomical.

The battle to retake Mosul has been the biggest urban conflict since the second World War and I was there last month as the final push to retake the last of the city started.

Unlike most modern conflicts, there was no fluid front line. The government forces launched an attack every morning, forcing back Islamic State a couple of city blocks at a time, and then they fired on each other for the rest of the day.

There was little or no attempt at secrecy. Most journalists knew which army unit was going to advance the next day, and sometimes even the time. If you wanted, you got your fixer (local translators and drivers who charge by the day in US dollars, the amount depending on the level of military contacts) to call the commander of the unit and see if they would take you along.

But just a few hundred metres away from the fighting it could feel remarkably normal, if you blocked out the sound of gunfire, the explosions and the rubble half the buildings has been reduced to, as most people seemed to do.

That day of the body bags, we drove through the tiny, narrow streets of the old city, using Google maps as a guide, to where we had arranged to meet one of the neighbours. Small shops had started selling food and water, mechanics and others were getting back to business in areas which had been fought over just a day or two previously; people were returning to see what was left of their homes. The side lanes were blocked by rubble and many had barricades of cars, piled up and burned by Islamic State as roadblocks.

Then suddenly things changed. The street opened up and we saw dozens of people running towards us across open ground. For the previous few days of the new offensive, soldiers told us they had seen few civilians attempting to cross over, but as we were there, in this small area, the dam burst and a couple of hundred people made a run for it, across the front line.

Black-clad mothers, children screaming in terror, men visibly broken by the strain of trying to protect their families, and old women who could barely stand up any more took their lives into their hands and ran.

It was a scene of utter terror, bewilderment and confusion and it is probably a measure of the faith these people still have in the western media that as soon as they collapsed in safety, most were more than willing to talk to a westerner with a flak jacket and a microphone. But it was also a measure of how much they feared Islamic State that no one wanted to be named.

One after another they told how Islamic State fighters had shot anyone trying to escape. One man had a bullet in his arm; he had six children, his wife and their elderly mother and he had watched his sister killed just minutes before, shot by an Islamic State sniper.

He was in tears as he told me: “The Isis snipers were firing on the families trying to flee. When we heard the bullets we lay down on the ground – they just slaughtered us. We are starving, we are dying, they just destroyed us, and all they brought to us is just slaughter and killings.” As he was speaking his mother and children were wailing in despair.

This was my eighth trip to Iraq, I have covered natural disasters, terror attacks and conflicts all over the world and suddenly on this hot afternoon I found myself with tears running down my face. I couldn’t explain it, I can’t now. Usually the work acts as a filter against an emotional reaction but maybe it was just the sheer scale of the desperation and the obvious hell these people had gone through that got to me.

We found a five-year-old boy who had been shot in the leg in a previous escape a couple of days before. His mother told me an infant had been killed just moments earlier, shot by Islamic State. She was a woman who was clearly at the end of her strength, in utter despair, who could barely stand up as she told me about life under Islamic State.

“They killed us, they killed us, they starved us, they are monsters, they are monsters, there are no monsters like them,” she said.

Over the course of a week in the city we met many women like her. Women whose male relatives had been murdered by Islamic State and who now saw no way they could survive and fend for their children. There was no aid agency in sight in the old city (there never was). Most days we gave these people all the food and water they had; the army gave them as much help as they could while directing people away from the front line to reception centres where, after screening for Islamic State infiltrators, they would be sent to camps.

Two ways of doing things

Reporting on the final days of the battle to liberate Mosul was an exercise in negotiation, because in Iraq there are two ways of doing things. The official way: by negotiating the layers of bureaucracy and getting nowhere. Or the way everyone does business: have someone who knows someone who can make a phone call and get things to happen.

The east of Mosul, the more modern part, was quickly taken when the battle started last October. But Islamic State blew all the bridges across the city, cutting off the more densely populated old city, along with up to 800,000 people. The city is currently approached by a temporary bridge about 50km south of the city. Getting into the city is a negotiation, mostly you need an army commander, usually a colonel, to tell the last checkpoint (you will have passed about 25 more earlier in your journey from Erbil) that he would take you. The commander would then send an armoured Humvee to take you or escort your own vehicle.

Driving into the city from the south, the course of the battle is obvious. Tank divisions pushed along the Syrian highway to the west of the city, blasting everything in their path. The levels of destruction is total – three - and four-storey blocks on either side of the road reduced to rubble. The tanks then turned east, along another highway, through a residential area to the Alshohada bridge, trapping Islamic State in the oldest part of the city.

Approaching the bridge, the destruction is on an apocalyptic scale, a scale of devastation only tanks and aircraft leave behind – vehicles blasted to twisted metal, buildings levelled. One area bore the scars of a huge air strike; the crater was the size of two football fields, about four stories deep and there was no way of telling what might have been there before.

Burned-out oil tankers were everywhere – Islamic State had used the smoke as a defence against air attacks. Near the ruins of the old bridge, the Iraqi Ninth Division had built a pontoon bridge for military traffic and their headquarters were nearby, in what was once a middle-class community of large houses.

At the entrance, beside a burned-out oil tanker – the fire had scorched a huge area – lay the twisted wreckage of a motorbike; next to that were the charred remains of the suicide bomber who had driven the bike; no one had bothered to remove the body. That was something we were to see again and again, the bodies of Islamic State fighters left lying in the streets as a final insult to them.

Front-line soldiers were only too happy to point out such things; this war against Islamic State in Iraq has to be the world’s first selfie, Facebook and Instagram war. Everyone wants their photograph taken in a military pose, or in a selfie with their journalist guests. They in turn want to show you their videos of battles and fighting taken on their phones.

Bombing a normality

On the first day of the offensive, two colleagues and I were with the Iraqi army in houses on the front line just 50m from Islamic State forces. In the narrow streets it sounded as if the battle was taking place over our heads; the houses we were in had been the front line just hours before.

They rooms were littered with partially assembled homemade rockets and other munitions. Holes had been cut in the walls between houses to allow Islamic State fighters to slip from one to another and to slip away if necessary. Defensive positions had been formed by piling cars on top of one another in the narrow streets and setting them alight.

Inside one house the unit lieutenant sat with two radios and two mobile phones. One phone had a military app showing an aerial view of his part of the city. The position of friendly units was marked with a blue dot, suspected Islamic State positions with red and while we were there he called up an air strike. Moments later there was a huge explosion, about a kilometre away, the ground and the windows shook; no one in the room, except the lieutenant and me, paid it any attention.

Most of these soldiers have been wounded a number of times, patched up and sent back in. They never look up or even blink at gunfire. When a mortar exploded in the street outside of one house and I ducked my head (just a bit), everyone had a good laugh and someone even gave me a bit of shrapnel from the shell when I was leaving.

The soldiers are mostly young – in their very early 20s – and they are all eager to profess an air of nonchalance. They come from places far away from Mosul, such as Baghdad, and uniforms appear to be whatever you fancy once it has some form of military appearance. A US-made outdoor brand called 511 appeared to be even more popular than the standard-issue uniform. I even came across a young soldier wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. He had never heard of guitarist Jimmy Page.

Uncertain future

What the future holds for them and for the people of Mosul is uncertain. To what extent the city will be rebuilt depends on the level of resentment in the rest of the country against the people of Mosul for welcoming Islamic State.

But Iraq has other pressing problems. First there is the corruption at all levels, which affects even aid agencies trying to work there. How can any progress be made when officials have to be paid before anything is done, where a refugee from Mosul, expecting to be given 10 litres of fuel in a camp gets only nine because the supplier expects a bit for himself.

The same aid agencies, taking billions of dollars a year in international funding, will also have to ask serious questions of themselves. They had no presence in the city, from what I saw. Immediate aid was being provided by tiny US agencies, such as Global Response Management, which ran that front-line field hospital on funds it had raised itself.

Then there is the issue of the Kurdish area of the country, which has been semi-autonomous since 2003. It has established a hard border between the two areas and will hold an independence referendum in September. Once Islamic State is defeated in Syria, a similar autonomous Kurdish area will appear over the border, in the face of furious opposition from Turkey. The future for this part of the world has only started to be written.

As for the body bags in our car. We were prevented from delivering them by military checkpoints and some came back to Erbil with us where they lay accusingly in a blue pile inside the door of our house for a while. Unfortunately, they made it back to Mosul a few days later and have since been used.

End of the caliphate

The defeat of Islamic State in Mosul effectively marks the end of their caliphate in Iraq. It still holds large areas of desert and small towns near the Syrian border, but its end there is also on the horizon, with the fall of Raqqa likely in the coming months. There are, so far unconfirmed, reports that Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghadadi, has been killed.

After Mosul and the likely defeat in Raqqa, Islamic State will be confined to isolated desert areas in Syria and Iraq, leaving it unlikely to attract foreign recruits in the numbers it has done in the past.

Islamic State blossomed in countries where there was a political vacuum – Syria in the civil war, and in northern Iraq weakened by political corruption and the alienation felt by the minority Sunni population in Mosul and the surrounding countryside. But it remains strong in the failed state that is the post-Gadafy Libya and in Nigeria in the form of Boku Haram.

The Iraqi authorities accept that many Arab Islamic State fighters will escape Mosul and slip through screening, posing as refugees from the battle. Foreigners have had little chance to escape, being easily spotted crossing the front lines. Women are not being screened in the paternalistic Iraqi society and some families and fighters will want to migrate to Libya to renew their jihadi lifestyle.

But whether the end of the caliphate will mean an end to terrorist attacks in European cities remains to be seen.

Fergal Keane is a reporter/ presenter with RTÉ. He reported from Mosul for Drivetime on RTÉ Radio 1

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