The battle for Mosul is the largest urban warfare operation since the second world war. As many as 100,000 troops from the Iraqi Army, Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga are combining to form a coalition of convenience and they agree on only one thing — the need to defeat the Islamic State.
After weeks of speculation last autumn, pressure was growing on the Iraqi government to officially start the battle. Late on the evening of 16 October, word spread that the beginning of the operation was imminent and journalists like me flocked to Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga positions to the south and east of Mosul.
The tale of Islamic State — its sleek propaganda, its savagery, the beheadings — is more than simply the big story of the day. It has become an epoch-defining narrative, one that captivated me while still at university. Last July I was just another graduate, but a few months later, in the early hours of 17 October, I found myself in Northern Iraq advancing with an armoured column of Kurdish forces towards three Islamic State-held villages to the east of Mosul.
The night before I had camped out in an abandoned house with several other journalists. Unable to sleep, I spent the evening interviewing dozens of Kurdish troops who were waiting to advance at dawn. When the sun came up, I followed in the tracks of an armoured vehicle packed with at least a dozen soldiers. Mortar rounds started exploding to the right and left and it occurred to me that we were being targeted.
‘I don’t care about the coalition; I am here to fight for my cousin,’ said Nechirvan, a volunteer Peshmerga fighter. His cousin had been killed just outside Mosul when the militants rampaged through much of Iraq in 2014, capturing its second-largest city. For many of the men and women in this fight, the battle for the city is personal, rather than just another chapter in the global war on terror. More than 1,500 young recruits to the Iraqi army were massacred by Islamic State in June 2014 at the American-built Camp Speicher, while Iraq’s minorities (Kurds, Yazidis and Christians) were forced to flee in their thousands as the jihadis rampaged through Nineveh and Anbar. There are very few people in Iraq who haven’t been personally affected by the group’s savagery.
By the end of that first day, the Kurdish unit I was attached to had captured three villages with relative ease. Similar victories had been won on other fronts to the city’s east and south. It was heralded as a huge success and the beginning of the end for Islamic State in Iraq. But for every headline that announced ‘swaths of villages recaptured’, and for every photograph of a freshly planted Iraqi flag waving in the breeze, there were dozens of untold tales of tragedy and hopelessness.
It would later become apparent that this was, and remains, a far bloodier battle than Iraqi officials would care to acknowledge. As the bitter winter set in, the number of civilian casualties climbed into the thousands. At a field hospital in the eastern neighbourhood of Al-Samah, I spoke to a young man named Ubay as he waited anxiously in a hospital corridor while medics treated his two neighbours, brothers Ali and Umar. Both were critically injured after their home took a direct hit from an indiscriminately fired mortar.
I watched as Ali was declared dead after just a few minutes, though his brother survived. Ubay, who had helped pull the two men from the rubble, was still covered in dust as he agonised over the horror that had taken place. In line with Islamic practice, Ali should have been buried that same day and the brothers’ family informed as soon as possible, but their neighbourhood had yet to be recaptured. Heavy fighting was continuing and there was no obvious answer as to what he should do.
Islamic State forces have been slowly pushed back into the old city of Mosul and by early March they were surrounded. The city’s fall is a foregone conclusion in the eyes of most, but the jihadis still hope for a pyrrhic victory. Civilians fleeing with white flags are often targeted by snipers, while mortars rain down on recently recaptured neighbourhoods and car bombs attempt to weave their way towards newly established Iraqi military positions.
Journalists who work in conflict zones often talk about how important it is to ‘bear witness’ and ‘speak truth to power’, but covering conflicts means intruding on some of the most intimate moments in a person’s life. In those situations, ‘bearing witness’ can seem like a self-righteous platitude. It doesn’t seem to cut it when you’re watching medics apply a tourniquet to an eight-year-old boy who has just stepped on an IED, nor does it make it easy to ask a recently bereaved mother about the anguish of watching her child die. Yet bear witness we must.
In January, I interviewed two brothers, Abdul-Rahman and Adnan, in the upmarket Mosul neighbourhood of Al-Zirai. They were from a wealthy family, but that had not spared them from having to spend two years living under Islamic State, nor from the dangers of urban warfare. They were living in their grandfather’s house after their home had been destroyed in an erroneous airstrike. Under the orange trees in the corner of their walled garden were the temporary graves of their mother, father and younger brother, who had been killed in that same strike. They had been forced to bury them in the garden because the family burial plot remained under Islamic State control. Over the course of more than an hour, they went into an excruciating level of detail as to how their whole family had been wiped out in the space of a few minutes. Their efforts to get answers from the Iraqi government had been fruitless and they were sharing the story with me because they saw it as the only way their family might get justice.
In a poem about foreign correspondents, James Fenton writes ‘we chose to speak of war and strife’ — it was the title of John Simpson’s most recent book. But from my experience on the front lines of Mosul, choice doesn’t really seem to come into it. Reporting on the battle against Islamic State in Mosul has become a responsibility, an inherent part of my identity. It is far more than a job. Every time I am pushed out of the way or my camera is slapped down, I remember the words of Abdul-Rahman: ‘You have to tell my story — you have to.’