Iraqi Troops Work Under Fire to Save Mosul’s Trapped Civilians
Exhausted residents scramble to freedom
A group of civilians walk along a raised section of a West Mosul highway beneath the morning sun. It’s only 9:00 a.m. and, despite a cool start, the temperature is steadily rising.
Beyond the civilians, smoke rises from a large fire, burning somewhere along the front line where Iraqi soldiers are fighting to retake the warrens of Mosul’s Old City from Islamic State.
The men, women and children walking along the highway have all recently escaped from I.S.-held portions of West Mosul—risking their lives in the process—into the safety of areas liberated by the Iraqi military.
Some haul heavy bags. Others push relatives in wheelchairs. One boy carries a pet bird in a cage.
A woman in the group holds a meowing white cat close to her chest. The woman, smiling and clearly happy to be free, explains that the cat is deaf, so it tends to meow a lot.
A small military truck belonging to Iraqi 9th Army Division, loaded with civilians, pulls up.
A soldier in the truck’s cabin holds a small miracle—a baby girl, swaddled in sheets, sleeps in his hands. The infant is just a day old and escaped this morning from I.S. territory with her mother who now rides among the civilians in the truck.
The United Nations last estimated that around 150,000 civilians remain trapped within I.S.-held territory in West Mosul, although the exact number changes frequently.
Islamic State uses these civilians as human shields, firing on them if they attempt to escape.
In a nearby neighborhood in Mosul’s Zinjili district, more refugees walk between Soviet-era BMP-1 armored personnel carriers and a sandbag-covered T-72 tank from the Iraqi 9th Armored Division. The troops here are currently awaiting orders to move out, if necessary.
The soldiers here say that around 400 refugees have moved through the district so far today.
Most of the civilians passing through Zinjili are from the Bab Sinjar and Borsa neighborhoods north of the Old City. Others come from the Shifa neighborhood, which contains the Al-Jumhoori Teaching Hospital where reports indicate that Islamic State is keeping around 400 civilians hostage.
A Mosul resident with friends trapped in the Old City says that Islamic State has bricked up and barricaded many of the routes leading out of its territory. In some places, the militants have welded doors shut, and laid sheet metal outside the doors so they can hear when residents leave their houses. Any who do face execution on the spot.
Along another street in Zinjili, Iraqi troops of the 16th Division have converted a residential home into their temporary headquarters for the day.
From the house, around 400 meters from the front line, one can see what remains of the Al-Jumhoori Teaching Hospital. The Iraqis have held off on targeting the building with air strikes, but do fire heavy weapons at it to suppress I.S. militants using the building as a firing position.
The street is the current resting place for the bodies of several dead I.S. fighters. One slain militant lies on a corner and has been baking in the hot Iraqi sun for five days. The body’s overpowering stench permeates out to around five meters like an invisible force field.
At the end of the street, on the other side of a wide highway, is a section of Mosul’s Medical College.
The highway was the scene of heavy fighting and many air strikes, and now resembles a a ditch rather than a road. The only way across, unless one scrambles through deep craters, is a bulldozed pathway created by the Iraqi Army. This path is also a route used by escapees and I.S. gunmen often target it.
West Mosul is awash with the sound of air strikes. Two Federal Police IRAMs—large improvised rocket-assisted mortars—scream upwards before beginning their slow and silent fall toward their targets.
The sound of explosions reverberates and echoes off nearby walls. Smoke and dust rises from impact points along the front line. Intense firefights between Islamic State and the Iraqi Army break out and fade to nothing before flaring up again. The fighting is relentless. We can hear the buzzing sounds of coalition or Iraqi drones loitering high above the city.
A soldier shouts to his colleagues.
A group of civilians escaping from I.S. territory have passed through a gap in the nearby front line and are heading toward the pathway where a soldier, named Ammar, stands with a set of prayer beads.
Ammar is one of many Kurdish soldiers in the 16th Division and is originally from Kirkuk. He also lived in Mosul, and right now he’s waiting for a friend—a former neighbor from the city—but he can’t reach him via a cellphone. Ammar explains that his friend’s phone is off, and for good reason.
His former neighbor and his family are hiding, trapped, in a building around 700 meters away. It’s not safe for them to make a call at the moment—as just having a phone in I.S. territory is a death sentence.
“The civilians find a way through ISIS lines, through gaps when ISIS shift their positions,” Ammar says.
The group he is waiting for has four families in it—around 30 people.
A group of soldiers sprint across the pathway, ducking low and kicking up dust as they make it across the danger zone and into safety. One soldier, a sergeant named Mortada, peers through the optic mounted on his M-4 carbine as they wait for the civilians.
A series of incoming bullets, sounding like angry flies, fly overhead and two or three rounds hit a building next to the temporary headquarters.
An elderly Mosul resident sits on the rooftop of an Iraqi Humvee after escaping across open ground. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The refugees arrive.
First, a Humvee appears with an elderly man and an Iraqi soldier sitting on top. A child peers through the front passenger seat. The man wipes his face as the vehicle passes through the exposed path and into the relative cover of the street, where more soldiers await.
Next, a group of around 15 people—all women and children—appear from behind a wall.
Civilians cross the last stretch of open ground before freedom in West Mosul. Matt Cetti-Robert photo
Encouraged by the waiting soldiers, the group begins to run, but they appear exhausted. Three of the women clutch toddlers to their chests, and drag older children along with their free hands.
To get this far, the women and children have had to run a physically and mentally-arduous gauntlet of I.S. sniper fire.
The last of the group to cross is a woman who appears ready to collapse. A child sitting on her arm seems oblivious to the danger. Another young girl cries as a soldier picks her up and carries her across the path.
Once reaching safety, he hands the child back to her mother, receiving a thank you in return.
An Iraqi soldier hands a child to her mother after helping escapees in West Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The group moves to a nearby Humvee where Iraqi troops hand out biscuits, cold water and cartons of orange juice. A French volunteer medic working with the Iraqi Army checks the civilians for injuries.
A woman cries and gestures back to the front line. Her hands are still clad in the black gloves that the ultra-puritanical Islamic State forced her to wear. She shouts for her husband, who was shot and killed during the escape.
A recent U.N. report stated that more than 200 civilians in Mosul have recently died at the hands of the Islamic State, many as they tried to escape.
More bullets fly overhead. Another, smaller, group of escapees form up on the other side of the path. A man in his 30s grimaces as stands, shouldering his young daughter. She sucks on a pacifier as an Iraqi soldier, M-16 rifle at the ready, runs across to escort them to freedom.
The group moves, but look tired even with the encouragement from nearby troops, and the most they can muster is a fast shuffle. The soldier grabs a bag of possessions from among the group and runs with them.
The father holding his daughter still wears a beard, mandatory for men living under Islamic State occupation. He adjusts the child to a more comfortable position as he and his family receive food and water. It’s mid-day and the temperature outside is more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before fleeing, several civilians say they hid in basements—a feature in many Mosul homes—to keep safe from the fighting raging around them. But life in what’s left of Islamic State’s territory has become harder than before, with many people having not eaten in days.
Water is at a premium. In addition to using civilians as human shields, the terror group is still trying to extort money from them, and now charges 100 Iraqi dinars for a five-gallon container of dirty water extracted from wells dug within the Old City.
Iraqi soldiers discuss how to reach an elderly couple trapped next to a building, visible at the right side of the frame. Matt Cetti-Roberts
Soldiers talk on a hand-held radio. Two escapees—an elderly couple—are under fire and need help.
The wife was injured during the escape attempt and is unable to move. Both are sheltering in a courtyard with a group of soldiers next to a building, formerly a university dormitory, on the other side of the path. I.S. rounds are hitting the building, their impact points visible from puffs of concrete dust.
One round pings off a drainpipe.
The soldiers prepare to run to the building, stripping themselves of unnecessary equipment, and only two men take rifles. A volunteer medic shoulders her large medical backpack and the group starts to sprint across the path.
The courtyard is not the safest. A damaged wall, with large gaping holes blown in its length, provides only partial cover. The soldiers are cautious, keeping low and looking for any line of sight to possible I.S. firing positions.
The elderly husband squats against the building, peering through reddened eyes at his injured wife, his face and clothes filthy with concrete dust, as the medic and soldiers arrive and get to work.
The woman was either injured by a bullet or piece of shrapnel that sliced through her neck.
A volunteer medic and a journalist’s translator tends to an injured woman in West Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The woman seems barely aware of those tending to her. Her bloody, dusty bandages show that someone at a forward Iraqi position has already patched her up, but dehydration and exhaustion have taken their toll. The medic inserts a tube into the woman’s arm and attaches a bottle of saline.
There is no way that the couple will be able to make the run across the path, so the medic and soldiers help the pair into a waiting Humvee. Before they can make the return journey, however, they will need to retrieve another female refugee who was incapacitated in a nearby building.
It’s unclear if she’s still alive, but regardless, she will need to be brought back to a safer area.
The route to the woman is not easy. The soldiers have to negotiate exposed areas and a veritable assault course of rubble. Large craters also mean that running in a straight line to the building is impossible.
One soldier covers the group as they begin sprinting. The group communicates by shouting to each other, moving in turns. By the time they reach the building, everyone is out of breath.
The building may once have had a discernible purpose, but now, heavy fighting has rendered it a scarred, gray, square skeleton with no hint of its former use. Other soldiers from the 16th Division peer from walkways above, waving at their tired colleges.
The woman lies in a hallway, wrapped in a blanket.
The medic quickly checks her for a pulse. None is found, so she and the soldiers discuss how to recover the body. They decide the only way is to raise the woman onto the shoulders of one man, as another and the medic hold her legs. The soldiers sprint as fast as they can across an open patch of rubble-strewn ground.
Another formless concrete building provides cover as they pause, hearing shouts from another group of soldiers who had halted after taking fire. They wait, hoping the I.S. fighter who was watching has turned his attention elsewhere.
Sprinting again, several soldiers spread out away from the group carrying the woman’s body. As they run, a bomb explodes just beyond a set of nearby buildings. Everyone ducks, gets up and moves.
The entire group makes it back to the building with the courtyard and the elderly couple. Those carrying the body are exhausted. A soldier calls for another Humvee.
The soldiers drink cold water from a cooler, but there’s no real respite. Just 10 minutes later another group of civilians are getting ready to cross the exposed path. A father grits his teeth as he carries his son on his back.
Ammar, the soldier from Kirkuk, is still by the path, waiting for his neighbor. He picks up a small girl and carries her to safety, quietly talking to her as she cries. Fed and watered, the soldiers usher the civilians along the street to safer areas.
Three older men approach the far side of the path, two running and one walking. One of the men raises his shirt and bares his chest, showing the waiting soldiers that he does not wear a suicide belt.
The first of the group runs across, looking like a marathon runner with his black dish-dash flapping in the wind and a bottle of water in his hand. The last man of the group saunters into cover, showing no sign of hurry.
It’s standard procedure for the Iraqi troops to inspect men of fighting age for explosives. Security is crucial and I.S. militants have already attempted to hide among escaping civilians. Anyone who needs greater scrutiny is quietly separated from their group and taken for questioning.
The largest group so far wait beyond the destroyed road. Around 30 people are about to cross. The civilians look more exhausted than any group before, and the soldiers are quick to run out and help.
The soldiers pick up the children, some two at a time.
With so many people, it takes time to cross, and fatigue shows on the faces of the civilians. It’s been a long journey already. Some carry heavy bags. An older, bearded man of around 50 dries his eyes with his fingers, crying as he walks into the cover of the surrounding buildings.
A few minutes later it becomes clear that this group was the advance party for even more escapees.
A young boy, around eight years old, with no sign of any family sprints across to the soldiers. Behind him is a straggling column of civilians. Some walk and some run as the Iraqi troops gesture for them to cross. A young man strains as he carries a disabled family member on his shoulders.
A gray-haired man with a huge grin of his face stops among the soldiers. “The Islamic State would have killed me if they had found my I.D. card,” he says, adding that before Islamic State came to Mosul he was a judge.
Another man, overjoyed at the presence of soldiers, hugs anyone he can find.
The soldiers hand cigarettes to any adults who want them. One soldier gives out a whole pack to a middle-aged man.
Some of those escaping are smokers and have either not smoked or have hidden their habit and paid extortionate prices for “smuggled” cigarettes within I.S.-held territory. Tobacco has not been easy to come by in the last few months. The man takes a cigarette from the pack and puffs away with a satisfied expression on his face.
The civilians continue to stream across the path. A man hobbles across, using a crutch to support an injured leg. Two young men carry a friend who is covered in bandages and sitting on a plastic lawn chair. The soldiers want everyone to cross as quickly as possible.
Mosul residents carry an injured man across open ground, under constant threat from I.S. snipers, in West Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A private unceremoniously hoists an old exhausted woman onto his shoulder and carries her across the path.
Behind him, another soldier pours water into people’s hands so they can wash their faces and cool off from the afternoon sun. He dumps the last of his bottle over a child’s head and leans down to kiss her hair.
A 16th Division soldier bends down to kiss a child as she and her family reach safety. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Ten minutes later, five more people cross and the deluge stops. The soldiers, although not as tired as the escaping civilians appear to be, haven’t stopped all day. The heat has drained the energy of both troops and civilians.
The emotions expressed by the civilians vary. Fatigue is universal, some cry, some look jubilant, but others look to be in a constant state of shock and unable to process their situation.
Along a narrow street in another section of Zinjili, smaller groups of refugees filter their way through areas garrisoned by Iraqi armored troops. The fighting on the edge of the Old City, just under a kilometer away, remains fierce.
Stray rounds continue buzzing overhead, air strikes are still audible, drones still loiter and the occasional I.S. mortar lands and explodes.
At the moment, this is normal for West Mosul.
A Mosul resident carries his belongings after escaping from I.S.-held territory in West Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
As dusk starts to fall over Iraq’s second largest city. A lone man, gaunt, the top of his gray hair dyed a youthful shade of red, walks slowly between the Iraqi Army’s BMP-1s and T-72s waiting in reserve.
Mohammed, who is 75, smiles as he talks. “I have lived underground in a basement for six months, we had to hide,” he says in English.
He was once a teacher in a Mosul school where he taught English, among other subjects. Smiling, he starts to hug everyone in the group. “I’m just so happy to see people!” he says.
Looking to one of the soldiers, he gestures and asks if he could have a cigarette. The soldier leans in to give him a light.
The gaunt man takes a puff and blissfully exhales, the smoke dissipating into the warm evening light. Mohammed refuses to take a seat when one is offered, saying he needs to catch up with his family. Despite being visibly tired, he bids everyone goodbye and continues along his way with a cheerful wave.
The next day, after filing this story, I.S. fighters began firing at vehicles crossing the bulldozed path. The same day, only a few civilians successfully passed through—meaning that Islamic State, somewhere deeper in the city, successfully closed the escape route to Zinjili.