Mosul, Iraq. December 2016 – July 2017
– Are not you afraid of me? Don’t you feel scared of me?
– No, I know you wouldn’t attack me without an order to do so.
– No, I would never do that.
– But would you like to receive that order?
– Of course!
Unlike anything or anyone else there, the Sun didn’t need superior orders to be violent. The beating heat was already over fifty degrees. Unrefreshing, the hot wind of that morning in Mosul flowed through our nostrils mingled with dust and the nauseating, oily stench of the countless bodies that rotted everywhere.
Beside us, the body of a man, thrown face down on the ashes of the burned vegetation, still let fresh blood flow through its various wounds. Haider and his soldiers had executed him seconds earlier.
We were under the oldest bridge in Mosul destroyed months before by western and Iraqi air strikes that isolated the eastern and western parts of the city. There, the Iraqi federal police had mounted what they called a “trap” against Islamic state fighters trying to flee swimming across the Tigers.
Haider, a 32-year-old first lieutenant from Baghdad, once, a student of English literature and law, was responsible for activating the trap every time a prey, exhausted or wounded, being carried by the current, tried to find refuge among the bridge wreckage that squirmed through that part of the river.
Despite his serious face, his expression of terror and fatigue, when he was captured by the soldiers of the first battalion of the federal police, on leaving the river, the man lying dead a few meters from our feet appeared to be in good physical condition. Unlike the thousands of civilians who had left that same part of the city, skeletal and diseased, his body were well nourished, his arms were strong, and his shoulders were wide like those who exercises specifically for this.
His hair was short and his beard long enough for a soldier to pull him out of the water grabbing him by it. He wore dark trousers that came down just below his knees and wore a white T-shirt with the word “Florida” stamped above the design of a landscape very different from the one in which he was at that moment.
He desperately tried to communicate with the soldiers who beat him, shouting and filming the whole situation with their cell phones. He said repeatedly that he was not a combatant; “Ana last Daesh, Ana last Daesh Saidi!
His strength and his hopes of survival lasted only the few meters and minutes that the Iraqi soldiers needed to drag him as they stripped him of his clothes violently.
Without enduring the pain and humiliation of the punches and threats he received, in total dismay, the man allowed his body to fall without any resistance on the ground to be immediately executed with several shots of rifles and pistols.
Happy and joyful, Haider started walking towards the shade, smiling alongside his soldiers as they compared the videos of the murder they had just committed.
A media blackout imposed by the Iraqi army had severely restricted journalist access. But the months I had spent embedded with the Federal Police on the Mosul frontlines and the confidence these soldiers had in me enabled me to be present. However, witnessing the aftermath of the final stages of the battle was still not without risk of arrest and I was eventually forced to leave under the threat of gunfire.
July 17 marked exactly one week since the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had been in Mosul to officially declare victory over the terrorist group that controlled the city for 3 years and threatened to invade the capital Baghdad but the need for a “trap” to eliminate Islamic State fighters yet active in the city made it clear that the declaration of victory, if not premature, had been made to serve something else but the truth.
A few hundred meters upstream, Iraqi special forces soldiers were still fighting the last Islamic State militants, and their rifle shots were only muffled by the arrival of an army helicopter that, with very low flights and sharp dips, fired missiles and blasts of machine gun against a certain point also on the banks of the Tigers.
The air raids lasted less than an hour, in a video posted on social media by the army, a camera installed in the helicopter, showed how the few survivors were killed while they tried in vain to hide from the bullets and explosions.
Euphoric with the eminence of a definitive victory, soldiers from all battalions began to celebrate as they watched what appeared to be a show of aerial acrobatics just a few feet from their eyes.
A cloud of fine dust rose, irritating everyone’s eyes and nostrils even more. A young soldier wearing an Iraqi flag like a superhero cloak and two other comrades climbed enthusiastically the ruins of the destroyed buildings to reach the newly, and final conquered spot. Arms, legs, heads, hundreds of whole or shattered bodies, decomposing for a short and for a long time, being eaten by crawling and flying insects were scattered all over the place, over and under a huge pile of debris. The scene where the last fighters of the Islamic state and their families were killed could only be compared to a hell.
Soldiers hurriedly tossed all the rubble around looking for weapons and documents, not caring that their steps were almost all over the bodies of the terrorists, but also over the bodies of women and children.
Less than two meters from touching the waters of the Tigers, a baby’s filthy body wearing only a camouflaged T-shirt was still tossed under pieces of metal and barbed wire. His birth and death had just happened.
Beneath his feet, a colour portrait of a young man who did not appear to be Iraqi. A body of a woman dried by the frying sun stretched out from the debris in a crucifix shape and the mutilated bodies of at least four other older children were squeezed just steps away. Were they his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters?
As if they had set a meeting to go hand in hand, the gestation of that child and the military offensives that defeated the Islamic State in Mosul had begun exactly 9 months ago, now, those who were born today and those who are still alive, will have to live with the consequences of the crimes committed for the fetus of peace to try to exist in Iraq one day.