IT WAS A bitterly cold, starry night. I lay awake in the car listening to the explosive thuds reverberating in the distance, the bombing having clearly intensified. Getting out to stretch my legs, my eyes adjusting to the light, I gazed up at the constellations. The sky, though clear, revealed no signs of the US-led coalition warplanes.
But they were there, somewhere, ploughing deep furrows of sound before dropping their deadly payload which made the horizon flicker sporadically like a candlelit room.
There would be little sleep that night and, although I didn’t know it then, even less in the days ahead.
The call from our Kurdish contact came late the night before, at around 11pm. The details were sparse, but we were instructed to drive north to a rendezvous point where we would be met by Kurdish peshmerga fighters. “Your names are on the list of correspondents, so be there well before dawn,” the contact instructed. Three hours later we arrived in the pitch black at a peshmerga base in the region of Nawaran, north-east of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
“What’s wrong with these people? Everyone here is trying to get away from this place and these reporters insist on coming,” joked one young sentry to our driver as we waited for final clearance at a checkpoint.
All around us armed fighters, armoured Humvees and trucks were on the move. Something big was clearly going down.
Around four in the morning a handful of correspondents, myself among them, shuffled bleary eyed into a tumbledown building surrounded by sandbags for a briefing.
“There are many dangers and your safety is our main concern, so please listen to our officers and take care,” said Colonel Dilshad Mawlood, who was helping coordinate the journalists covering the impending operation.
The operation, the colonel told us, was to be the biggest military offensive so far in the battle to liberate Mosul from jihadist Islamic State (IS) fighters, who for two years have made the city the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate.
The advance at dawn on Thursday, October 20, from the village of Nawaran and the towns of Bashiqa and Bartella, would mark the most significant military step yet on the long, bloody road to Mosul. It’s a journey I’ve been on for a long time.
IN SOME WAYS that journey to Mosul started a long time ago, when I saw it liberated back in 2003 by peshmerga and US special forces following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
I remember well the equally uncertain days back then, watching jubilant Iraqis chanting anti-Saddam slogans as they entered a branch of the Bank of Iraq in Mosul, emerging with bundles of Iraqi dinars bearing Saddam’s face that they tore to shreds. To this day in my mind’s eye I can still see those thousands of banknotes fluttering down Mosul’s streets.
My more recent journey – to cover the latest efforts to liberate the city from an altogether different and even more brutal IS regime – got under way in earnest a few months ago.
Unlike the clear starry night before, the sky most of the time back in August was an apocalyptic one. For days thick plumes of black smoke had been spiralling upwards and settled into a dense, ominous blanket over the oil town of Qayyara, south of Mosul.
“Daesh have set fire to the oil wells. The smoke lets them hide from the coalition warplanes and their bombs,” a masked Iraqi soldier told me, referring to the jihadists using the commonly used Arabic acronym, as he pointed upwards.
That day too the coalition warplanes were busy, the occasional fireball puncturing the curtain of soot-black smoke as another of their bombs erupted with the gory bloom of a direct hit on their targets inside Qayyara. Whenever I watch such an onslaught it’s hard to conceive of anyone or anything surviving such an inferno.
But as I was to find out in the weeks and months that followed, the jihadists of IS are, if nothing else, resourceful, tenacious and cunning. For them war is a no-quarter business, and using any tactic or weapon is valid in confronting their foes.
One afternoon in the August heat, when temperatures were reaching 52C (126F), I sat talking with three young peshmerga fighters. Assim Ahem, along with his fellow peshmerga Ahmed Mehsin and Yusef Aziz, know all about getting up close to an enemy who more often than not are so elusive they seem like ghosts.
“We moved along until we came to a kind of chamber where there were signs that four Daesh had been hiding,” said 25-year-old Ahem, telling me of the time he and his comrades had entered a network of IS tunnels near the village of Kanash close to the Gwer Bridge frontline east of Mosul.
“Inside we saw their bedrolls, cooking utensils and weapons,” Ahem said, an Egyptian-made Port Said-Akaba submachine gun slung around his neck which he had looted from the IS lair.
It was only on discovering the tunnel had not actually been vacated by the IS fighters that the three peshmerga realised there was a large booby trap bomb rigged to explode should the tunnel be overrun. They then quickly backed out.
The longer I stayed on the Mosul frontline the more I saw these tunnel networks and the deployment of snipers, widespread use of IEDs or roadside bombs and the dreaded suicide truck bombers.
One day, clambering through bomb-blasted houses with peshmerga fighters near the village of Khazir east of Mosul, where the coalition airstrikes had previously delivered their destructive message, the unmistakable stench from the corpses of IS fighters still lying beneath the rubble wafted sickeningly around us.
Everywhere lay the tell-tale signs of IS’s presence before the warplanes and artillery had eviscerated their existence. In one room I came across the wooden shoulder stock of a Kalashnikov assault rifle blown apart from the rest of the weapon. In another, a charred shoe with what remained of a human foot inside.
Another room contained heaps of documents including a poster produced by IS explaining why television satellite dishes were haram, or forbidden, under Islamic law. It was a strange proclamation given that the jihadists themselves have made full use of television and social media for propaganda.
“This is one of their tunnels we have yet to enter,” a fighter told me as I was led into a room where a semi-circle of protective sandbags still sat around the entrance to the tunnel.
What still lurked beneath, I couldn’t help wondering. What booby traps had they left behind in the hope of killing or maiming those peshmerga who had the unenviable task of going in to clear the tunnel?
IS fighters have been known to wait for days ready to detonate bombs when soldiers enter, or emerge to make a last bloody stand.
It would not be the last IS tunnel I would come across.
TWO WEEKS AGO in the town of Bartella, barely nine miles east of Mosul’s outskirts, I stood peering into another of the jihadists’ subterranean hideouts. In the gloom it was just possible to see two bodies wrapped in blankets.
These were not the corpses of IS fighters, however, but those of two of Bartella’s predominantly Christian citizens who had been buried there some time ago in the crypt of Mart Shmony Syriac Orthodox Church.
For the IS fighters holding the town the presence of these human remains had not prevented them from prising up a paving stone on the church floor to gain access to the crypt, which they were using as a bomb shelter.
Outside the church too in an adjacent graveyard, stone slabs from tombs there had also been removed, enabling them to be used as makeshift bunkers.
From these tombs IS fighters would briefly surface into the open to fire missiles and a 122mm rocket still stood on its improvised launcher. Having fired the rockets the jihadists would duck back down in the tombs to avoid coalition airstrikes or retaliatory bombardment from Iraqi Army Special Forces.
Everywhere the surrounding stonework was deeply pocked with bullet marks from the fierce close-quarter fighting that had taken place as Iraqi forces killed the last eight jihadists who were holed up in the tombs.
By the time this fighting was under way the world at last seemed to have woken up and taken notice of the Mosul story.
ARRIVING BACK IN Iraq a few weeks ago I did so at the same time as many foreign journalists coming to join those Iraqi and Kurdish reporters who for years have been following the military struggle to rid their country of IS’s scourge.
On the morning of the dawn October offensive I found myself in a peshmerga convoy along with a reporter and cameraman from the Iraqi television political channel Rega, a media outlet widely associated with the Communist Party of Kurdistan (CPK). We were heading out into the Nineveh Plain, part of the spearhead on the Nawaran sector of the advance.
Both journalists as well as their driver and bodyguard were from the town of Sinjar and belonged to the ethnic and religious minority Yazidi community which has suffered some of the worst and most barbaric oppression under IS rule.
Slowly, but steadily, we moved forward, the peshmerga ahead of us engaging with IS resistance as they met it. Some of the fighters at the head of the column carried sophisticated portable anti-tank missile launchers to destroy any incoming IS suicide bombers in trucks packed with explosives.
“We should stay close to the convoy, IS are still all around here,” one of the Rega journalists warned as we passed piles of used shell cases and other fresh detritus of battle scattered in the dirt alongside the track.
By now the Kurdish advance had been slowed by stiff resistance from IS fighters dug in around the town of Barima and the village of Dere.
“Most likely they are using tunnels to move around,” one peshmerga explained as an artillery barrage called in by the Kurds temporarily replaced the rattle of small arms from peshmerga and IS firefights.
At one position just behind a freshly constructed sand berm a few yards from where we crouched, I watched two peshmerga directing a JCB driver to cover something on the ground with earth.
“What is it, corpses?” I enquired of one fighter. “No, just an unexploded mortar bomb,” came his unconcerned reply despite the vibration and noise of the earthmover that might have detonated the weapon.
It was to prove a long day as time and again our advance was held up by incoming mortar rounds and machinegun fire from the IS positions ahead.
At no point that day did I see any civilians in those villages retaken by Kurdish troops and already stories were circulating of civilians being herded by IS back toward Mosul to be used as human shields.
Those civilians I had encountered in previous months had faces etched by the horrors they had experienced under IS.
“It’s like being in prison, you cannot move. It’s like a psychological war the way Daesh control everything,” one man who preferred not to be named told me near Qayyara. “There are no schools, everything is forbidden, only looting and weapons flourish,” he said.
I remember that day looking over at the man’s wife and two-year-old daughter, whose name he told me was Farha. They were sitting in the shade of a ramshackle tarpaulin tent strewn with litter and other filth. What must it be like to be uprooted, forced to walk away with nothing to an uncertain future, I wondered not for the first time during many years of covering war.
Farha in Arabic mean “happy occasion” or “joyous time” but there was only worry ahead for this family.
As I write, the battle for Mosul is reaching a new intensity. Iraqi forces are now within the city’s limits and the suffering of Mosul’s civilians, such as Farha and her family, is certain to get worse.
A few days ago in the sprawling Diabaga camp for those displaced by the fighting I met 75-year-old Nabila and her grandson Ahmed who had made the incredibly dangerous trek from their village east of Mosul fearing that they too might be moved to the city as human shields.
“We have had enough of living in fear and war all around,” Nabila told me as outside yet more new arrivals pulled up in trucks at Dibaga’s gates.
The very spot where we sat talking was only a few hundred yards away from where, shortly after the October offensive began, I met Paul Hansen, a Swedish photojournalist who was also on assignment to cover the Mosul story.
I didn’t know while talking to Paul that the next day he would be shot by a sniper on the frontline near Bashiqa. To say he was lucky to survive would be an understatement – one bullet came off his helmet and another off his flak jacket before a third hit him outside the jacket’s protective plate, entering his back. Following surgery to remove the bullet he was pronounced well enough to fly back to Sweden and be reunited with his family.
As Paul himself I’m sure would be the first to recognise, most ordinary Iraqis do not have that escape route while caught up in the struggle to free their country from IS.
At the end of what felt like an interminably long week recently I found myself looking over a few hastily scribbled lines in my notebook: “incoming mortar fire”; “lurking suicide truck bombers”; “desecrated church”; “graves used as bunkers”; “colleague shot by sniper”; “old lady and grandson who walked hours to escape”.
They are nothing more than simple random notes, aide-memoires from a battle that is far from over.
So much has been compressed into such a short space during my time on Mosul’s frontline that these cameo moments have merged into a kaleidoscopic montage, each part almost indistinguishable from the other.
The road to Mosul has been long, tough and bloody. This epic battle for the city and possibly the future of Iraq has a long way to go yet.
Horrendous as it must be for those trapped inside the city, liberation from the abomination that is IS is surely coming. I can’t imagine not being there to witness their freedom.
David Pratt is the only Scottish Newspaper journalist to have been on the frontline of the advance on Mosul.
Source : HeraldScotland