MOSUL, Iraq – Mohammed looks out the dirty back window of the Civil Defense ambulance. He holds firmly to the gate, eager to get outside in order to start his quest. Like most of Mosul’s citizens, he wants to take back the dead bodies of his relatives. He didn’t have the chance to carry them with him — he ran away before an airstrike hit his neighborhood. They deserve to rest in peace even while more bombs rain down.
As the battle for Mosul nears its end, it gets more violent and access becomes more dangerous. Watch your steps — thousands of invisible booby traps lie in wait. The sounds of mortars and bombs echo a path of destruction. A river of civilians fleeing from the ashes and devastation evokes the last moments of the caliphate’s terror. There are dead bodies of ISIS fighters on every corner, and the streets are littered with the dust-covered belongings left behind by those who fled or were killed. Traumatized and confused faces, skinny and naked bodies, survivors of famine, isolation and hate… It’s almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The air seems to melt hope and life. Prove that you are not part of ISIS, then enjoy your long-awaited, so-called freedom inside a refugee camp. Fail to prove your innocence to the satisfaction of your interrogators, and you will embrace your freedom from the inside of a cell.
A broken ISIS watch found on a body seems to evoke the long-awaited end of the operation started on Oct. 17. It’s almost there, but the nightmare is not finished. The city is devastated and its wounds may never heal. Hundreds of prisoners still wait to be interrogated, thousands remain displaced: The war doesn’t end with the last bullet, or when the flag is raised.
It took just days for ISIS to take Mosul in June 2014 but more than eight months for it to be retaken by Iraqi forces backed by militias and a U.S.-led coalition. Sectarian tension has increased as war has left Mosul in ruins. Iraq faces a terrible humanitarian crisis, with more than 1 million civilians displaced. The spectre of a new civil war is knocking on doors, while the spotlight points to Raqqa as the media’s next meeting point. Could Iraq be forgotten soon? The future of millions is written in the blood that streams from the unhealed wounds of years of warfare.