Underequipped and Unpaid, Mosul’s Civil Defenders Reunite the Dead With the Living
Heart-breaking, stomach-turning work
A month passed since Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi declared victory in the battle to clear Islamic State from Mosul. A hesitant calm has descended over the city as neighborhoods that residents abandoned during the fighting are gradually repopulating.
The task of Mosul’s liberators has shifted to reconstruction. Parts of the city are completely destroyed and have no water or electricity — especially western Mosul’s Old City neighborhood, where the fighting dragged on until early July 2017. The United Nations estimates it will cost at least $1 billion to rebuild Mosul’s infrastructure.
Walking through the rubble-filled alleys, you can smell the corpses left the putrefy under the debris. The unhappy task of retrieving the dead falls to the Mosul Civil Defense Force. Every morning, grief-stricken residents arrive at the CDF station in West Mosul’s Hai Maemon neighborhood to ask for help excavating human remains.
At top — Nectar Shamir Wadala’s father looks away as his body is exhumed from a temporary grave in a garden in Mosul’s Old City. Above — CDF members lift a corpse in a body bag after exhuming it from a temporary grave where the individual was buried along with approximately 35 other people killed three months prior during the Battle of Mosul. Photo by the author
Driving worn-down work trucks and construction vehicles, CDF members accompany survivors to the locations where they believe their loved ones are entombed. Most calls lead into Old City. On my first day with the rescuers, they aided in the recovery of two dead civilians buried in a makeshift mass grave in what was, in peaceful times, a small garden tucked among the alleys of Old City.
The path through the rubble was at times nearly impassable owing to craters from air strikes and IEDs that authorities had not yet defused. Tail fins from mortars and empty ammunition cans littered to ground. Walls were scarred by bullets.
Crouching under a low arch, we reached the garden. The stench of death was thick in the air. Three months ago some 35 people had been hastily buried here. Many had died in a mortar attack. It wasn’t clear whether ISIS or the Iraqi military fired the mortar.
Nectar Shamir Wadala’s family members carry his body through the alleys of Old City. Photo by the author
The two individuals we came to collect had not been forgotten by their families. The first was a mother and wife named Noor, who was survived by her teenage son. He seemed calm and unaffected by the goings-on around him, but in fact he was simply too deeply traumatized by war and loss to display much emotion.
The other victim, 18-year-old Nectar Shamir Wadala, was being retrieved by his father and two younger brothers. The elder Wadala cried as he held up his son’s I.D. card, but regained his composure as he watched him being exhumed from his shallow grave.
The day was hot. As the CDF members dug into the grave, the smell became unbearable. Ayan, a six-year veteran of the CDF, had been a psychiatrist before joining the group. “I do this work because I love Mosul, I love the people,” he said. But, he added, “our work is very difficult.”
CDF personnel and members of the Wadala family stand near a CDF vehicle after loading Nectar Shamir Wadala’s body into the truck bed. Photo by the author
The CDF members hastily placed Wadala’s corpse in a body bag. Noor followed a short time later. As the CDF members carried the bodies toward the trucks, one of them vomited. This retrieval had been relatively easy compared to some of the team’s other missions. Digging out bodies from collapsed buildings can take days.
Back at the CDF base, the family of the deceased filled out some paperwork to have the bodies released to them. The next step was to take the bodies to West Mosul’s only functioning hospital and morgue in order to get a death certificate. The final destination — one of Mosul’s many cemeteries.
Khalid Aralho, 25, is one of the youngest CDF members and has assisted in the recovery of countless victims of the conflict. “When we take their bodies, we feel like they are our family,” he said. “We get so sad. But after all, it is our job. It is our city.”
Yazin Ali and his brother watch cemetery workers dig a grave for their nine-year-old younger brother Amjed Ali, who was killed by an air strike in Mosul’s Shifa neighborhood. Photo by the author
Incredibly, the CDF hasn’t received salaries from Baghdad since ISIS captured Mosul in 2014. The government keeps promising that the back-pay is on the way. While under ISIS occupation, the CDF kept right on working despite occasional death threats.
CDF member Mohammed lost his 10-year-old son to an ISIS bullet as he and his family fled the front line. “We were all running and an ISIS sniper shot me in the leg, and then he shot my son. He died in my arms.”
Operating like a fraternity in their station, the men cook, clean, eat and sleep together … wait for the call. Early in the morning following the garden excavation, a man named Yazin Ali and his brother came to ask for help retrieving their nine-year-old younger brother Amjed Ali, who had been killed by an air strike in West Mosul’s Shifa neighborhood and lay trapped in the wreckage.
The CDF brought along an excavator to help with the job. The process was a familiar one. Dig up the body. Fill out the paperwork. Visit the hospital. Then head to the cemetery. Amjed had died in West Mosul, but he was buried on the top of a quiet hill in East Mosul, laid to rest not by an indiscriminate act of violence … but instead, by an act of love.