Endtimes in Mosul

Patrick Cockburn

On 22 May, Ahmed Mohsen, an unemployed taxi driver, left his house in the Islamic State-controlled western part of Mosul to try to escape across the Tigris to the government-held eastern side of the city. He and his mother, along with ten other people, carried rubber tyres down to the river: most of them couldn’t swim, and they planned to tie them together to make a raft. The siege of Mosul was in its seventh month and Ahmed was both desperate and starving: he and his mother were living on handfuls of wheat they cooked, though he said it made him feel sick. His friends believe that lack of food made him light-headed and led him to risk crossing the river. ‘Even if I die in the river,’ he told them, ‘it will be better than living here.’

IS snipers were shooting people who tried to leave. Their commanders calculated that holding the civilian population hostage, as human shields, would deter Iraqi government troops and the US-led coalition air forces from using the full extent of their firepower. This strategy had worked, to an extent, during the siege of east Mosul, which began on 17 October; it was three months before that part of the city was captured. But by the time the assault on west Mosul began on 19 February there was little sign of Iraqi or American restraint. As the bombardment intensified, the only plausible escape route for Ahmed was across the Tigris between the Fifth and Sixth Bridges, both of which had been put out of action by coalition airstrikes. He had already seen IS snipers kill three people who’d tried to cross and his luck was no better: a sniper shot him in the back and killed him, along with nine other members of his party, before they had even put their tyres in the water. Only one man, a good swimmer, got across to the other side. According to people living in houses overlooking the riverbank, Ahmed’s mother stayed beside his body for three days. Nobody dared to go to help her because they were afraid of being shot; on the third day, they say, they could no longer see her or the body of her son. They were probably thrown into the river, like hundreds of others.

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I had got to know about Ahmed in an indirect way, two months before he died. After IS captured Mosul in June 2014 it became difficult for journalists or anybody outside the city to talk to people living under its rule. IS did everything it could to seal off the population from contact with the outside world. It blew up mobile phone masts, banned the use of phones and executed anybody caught using them in the few high places where there was reception. You could always interview people who had fled IS territory, but this wasn’t a satisfactory way of gathering information: refugees from Mosul arriving in Iraqi government or Kurdish-controlled territory were at the mercy of local military and civilian authorities and had every incentive to denounce IS as demonic, to dispel suspicions that they had been collaborators or members. Mosul is a Sunni Arab city and Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis suspect Sunnis in general of colluding with IS. ‘I have never seen such terrified people in my life as a group of young men who had run away from Mosul waiting to be vetted by Iraqi security to see if they were former IS fighters,’ a human rights worker in a camp for internally displaced persons 15 miles south of Mosul told me. ‘One day I saw two men of military age walk into a tent for questioning. They were carried to the camp hospital on stretchers two hours later covered in blood.’

As the assault on west Mosul gathered pace, the IS strategy of isolating people behind its lines started to falter. The Iraqi government brought in a mobile phone mast mounted on the back of a truck and put it up at Nabi Yunus, the Tomb of Jonah, a shrine that IS had blown up as heretical in 2014, but whose ruins remain the highest point in east Mosul. Phones in the west of the city started working again and IS was too busy defending itself against army incursions to hunt down civilians talking on their mobiles. I knew someone who lived on the east bank of the Tigris: he found he was able to speak, over a poor connection, to relatives and friends in the IS-held territory on the other side of the river.

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