Civilians Flee Mosul's Besieged Old City

Photographs and Text by Laurent Van der Stockt

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Hunting for ISIS, Iraqi Forces in Mosul Find Panicked Civilians

By Laurent Van der Stockt
June 2, 2017

By the time the RPG strikes their lead Humvee, the seven-man commando team from Iraqi Special Operations Forces has already had a long, exhausting day fighting the Islamic State for control of al Saha District, north of Mosul’s Old City. It is the eighth month of the campaign to retake the city from IS control, and casualties are mounting on all sides. The diminishing ranks of IS fighters cling to their dwindling positions, mounting sniper attacks and suicide bombings – by car, by bulldozer, by pedestrian – in Mosul’s densest neighborhoods. Al Saha is one such neighborhood and, with the commandos’ Humvee disabled, the men are obliged to leave their armored vehicles to traverse these streets on foot.

As dusk falls, the soldiers search al Saha’s darkened houses, floor by floor, room by room, for IS fighters and, more often, the booby traps left behind as they flee. With each move forward, the soldiers expect to see an IS fighter hurtling himself in their direction, enwrapped in a suicide belt, ready to take their lives along with his own. These visions are not the product of fervid imaginations; they have all lost a companion this way.

The group’s mine-clearance expert is at the head of the commando unit. If he exposes himself while looking for a trip-wire or for the electric cables of an IED, he risks being shot dead. And so a hand grenade often precedes him, activating other, hidden explosive devices, letting the commandos rush into the dark, dusty fog. In one such instance, the mine-clearance man does his work and the men burst through an exploded back door and into a courtyard, ready to exchange gunfire. But as the dust settles, the Iraqi forces are paralyzed by a striking sight: not a legion of IS fighters, but throngs of panicked civilians gathered around the courtyard gate. 

They are frantic; they scream; they ask for the soldiers’ help but don’t wait for their answers, and run off again. They pour forth from doors, alleys, from everywhere at the same time. The stream of people becomes a flood, and the shouts mix with the thunder of gunfire to create a nightmarish din. The people are thin. They are old and paralyzed. Children stumble or cry. Men carry the weakened. Women push wheelchairs or pull little girls. Many people are in rags, other wounded. Most have bulging eyes.

They show signs of a long physical and emotional suffering, but at this very moment they most of all look afraid. They run but sometimes they stop and kiss their rescuers on the foreheads, taking their heads between their hands, in a fervent gesture. At the same time, they seem just as afraid of their rescuers as they are of the men from whom they’re being rescued.

The people flood into streets clogged with destroyed vehicles, and they struggle to climb around and over the hulking pieces of smoldering metal. It is utter chaos. 

A man clears himself a passage in the crowd, climbs over the carcass of a car, and pulls up a disabled grandmother and then a child. The little boy, illuminated by a truck still on fire, mouth agape, seems overwhelmed by the Dante-esque scene which surrounds him.

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