Reflections on Mosul

I've stopped counting the burnt out vehicles - there's just no point now.

 

We're driving down a recently liberated highway in West Mosul - it looks like a scene from a disaster movie. Craters, burnt out cars and flat bed lorries litter the highway - most on their side or roofs; this is real devastation.

Just a few weeks ago, I watched artillery, mortars and attack helicopters firing hellfire missiles and 30mm chain gun into these streets. ISIS put up a real fight, fortifying the streets with heavy vehicles, and then searching for the vulnerable points between military units and driving suicide vehicles into them. I know this because I saw and heard them.

 

You can start to gauge the distance and size of explosions by what everyone else does, and how it feels in your stomach.

 

We pass streams of civilians, returning home - they don't look happy or relieved, some look like they're just waiting for it all to start again. I think it's because they can smell the dead bodies rotting in the sun and under demolished buildings.

 

In a curious moment, I realise burnt out tire beads reminds me of shredded wheat fibres.

Other times I see genuine happiness for freedom. Days before, we're at a medical aid point about a kilometre from the frontline when lorries of people turn up from a recently liberated neighbourhood. Families pour out and begin walking towards the Iraqi Army medics - who hand out cold water and high-energy biscuits.

 

An old man - the same age as my Dad - greets me enthusiastically. I’m dumbfounded, and realise I don't know how to respond; should I be happy, sad, indifferent, sullen?

 

I return his greeting 'Waleykum Salaam' (and God be with you). There are tears in his eyes as he tells our translator that he's been sheltering his family in an underground basement for around 3 months. Just one look at his 2 small children confirms this; both have dark rings beneath their weary eyes.

 

He asks us for a cigarette, I can’t get the packet out of my trouser pocket fast enough. He smiles and takes one and I tell him to have the pack, as I disappear to an old chest freezer and pull him out another 2 litres of lukewarm water. It takes me a few days for this experience to leave my short-term memory.

 

 

This conflict, like many others I've been in, is often punctuated with odd moments. I've met enough characters to fill an entire book; a French female volunteer emergency medical technician whom helps treat casualties from the front line - whether these are civilians or military, her Christian faith is what drew her here. She's tall and wiry, and her eyes tell me she's tired of the war. But she stays there as long as she's needed.

 

Or the American family that's helping civilians get out of the conflict zone – by literally running under a hail of bullets to rescue those injured by ISIS snipers. The charismatic ex-military father has bought his family out here outside of their school terms - like a practical lesson in real life. They're friendly and likeable - we laugh and joke around in the rare moments when it’s quiet. For a moment, I wonder if I'd ever do the same, until I picture my parents faces and decide I'd probably not.

 

I've been here 6 weeks and feel tired now. Sure I've taken a day off occasionally to visit some of the beautiful lakes that punctuate Iraqi-Kurdistan, but my mind now thinks about the upcoming mountaineering trip in the French alps. I can't help but feel a little guilty, the people I'm here with will be here for many more months, and likely for the long run. They're like family and so I work hard to make sure I do everything to help them; even if that results in arguments - we always make up and I reassure them that I only want them to get home safely when the job is done.