Iraq is a state in the region of Mesopotamia flowed by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The area was the cradle of humanity since the 4th millennium BC. when the first organized city-states were founded here. Two millennia later, Babylon was established including a remarkable palace with hanging gardens, a unique achievement in a poor vegetation area and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. These cultures developed for the first time writing and sciences. In the 4th century BC, Mesopotamia was conquered by Alexander the Great and annexed to his great empire.
The modern history of the country is turbulent. After the First World War it became a British Protectorate and a few years later an independent kingdom until the revolution of 1958, when the political situation became more complex with constant uprisings of leaders and the final prevalence of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 1979. Following his imperialist aspirations, he invaded Iran and afterwards Kuwait. NATO forces intervened and launched merciless bombings in two major wars that broke the country apart, createing conditions for continued civil war, terrorist attacks and jihadist militia activities.
In today’s Iraq, there are many heterogeneous population groups, including Arabs and Kurds, as well as Assyrians, Turks, Yazidi, Armenians. The main religion is Shiite Islam, followed by the Sunni and Kurdish, while there is a Christian minority.
Although Iraq is a rich oil-producing country, it is still underdeveloped and the industries almost non-existent.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a pillar of peace and prosperity in this turbulent area of the planet. It is a semi-autonomous country state, with its own flag and troops, the fearless “peshmerga”. The rich petroleum deposits, obtain to the area an economic prosperity. The capital city of Erbil has nothing to envy from a modern western city. Modern roads, commercial establishments, nature parks, and a beautiful central square under the imposing city’s citadel, consist a modern Eden in a short distance of hell. The nobility and friendliness of the Kurdish people is remarkable.
Mosul was a city built on the banks of the Tigris River near the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Although it is only 40 km from the Kurdish land, the difference is dramatic.
The city came to the forefront of warfare during the US invasion in 2003, when western and Kurdish fighters captured the city. Two of Saddam Hussein sons were killed in subsequent retreat battles. Since then, the city has been in a state of war, with many bomb attacks. In 2008, about 12,000 Assyrian Christians left the city after murders and threatening Islamic pressure.
On June 10, 2014, the jihadist organization of “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS or ISIL or Daesh) suddenly captured Mosul and declared its “caliphate,” by taking on major military equipment from three American divisions, taking advantage of the insufficient Iraqi army and the negligence of Baghdad government. Many of the citizens warmly welcomed the conquerors who promised a fair theocratic rule under the orders of correct Sunni Islam. People uneducated and fed up at the inadequacy of the Shiite Government of Baghdad.
A large part of the local population, about half a million people, left the city on the first two days with vehicles and on foot, escaping from the barbarity that would follow.
ISIS imposed their extreme version of the Sharia law. Women were forced to be accompanied by a man everywhere and have their body completely covered, even their hands. From personal testimonies, we learned that women were murdered because they just wore lipsticks or socks of color different than black. The men had to leave a long beard in accordance with the Islamic decrees. All citizens were de facto imprisoned and were forbidden to leave the city except for a three-day leave, paying tax and leaving behind their property as members of their family. Communications and internet access were destroyed, the Tigris bridges were bombed. Those who were suspected of resistance against conquerors, espionage, homosexuality, embarrassment or adultery were brutally tortured and brutally murdered. Their murderous propaganda was exposed on social networks, with terrorists participating in videos of beheadings and brutal executions in various ways that hardly can think of, even the most sick human mind. Women of minority groups were raped and given or sold as sex slaves to the fighters, while those who resisted were murdered. Women and children were used as suicide bombers. Ancient monuments and churches were considered idolatrous and destroyed, libraries burned down, culture was muted.
ISIS carried out ethnic cleansing of the population. Around 50,000 Yazidi fled to the Sinjar Mountains to escape from cruelties. There, they were trapped into starvation, without food, water and medicine, becoming victims of humanitarian crisis and genocide.
In October 2016, Iraqi, Kurdish and international forces launched extensive military operations bombarding these areas. ISIS used the civilians as human shields, leading them to mass death under the bombed rumbles. In July 2017 the city was declared liberated but… demolished. The final account of the nine-month battle for liberation is estimated at 11,000 dead civilians, while the number of missing persons in the three-year occupation reaches 30,000. One million displaced people are currently living in refugee shelters in the region or looking for a crossing to Europe.
The highway to hell…
Just approaching the city is an adventure on its own. Entry to Iraqi Kurdistan was easy from the Turkish border of Ibrahim Khalil. Although the entry stamp is a simple procedure for European Union passports, (at least as long as borders are controlled by the Kurds (1/5/2018), crossing the border is a bureaucratic trouble, as it is compulsory to use a mini bus that stacks passengers in a “hop on-hop off” process that costs 2 hours of inconvenience and $10. The time waste will be much more if you get to the border by public transport having to queue behind endless lines of trucks. Fortunately we had rented a car from the Turkish city of Diyarbakir to the border. On the way back, we had the audacity to deny this mandatory border crossing bus and miraculously convinced the officers, being the only ones who crossed the Tigris bridge on foot, under the surprised eyes of the locals and the Turkish security guards. The entry stamp at this border applies only to the Kurdistan region. Mosul is controlled by the Iraqi army and an Iraqi visa pre-issued in an embassy is mandatory. And it’s rather unlikely to get a tourist visa for this war zone country. We were been informed that the penalty for illegal entry into the country is up to ten years imprisonment.
We decided to ignore the preparation I had made for finding a “fixer”. A “fixer” is a profession that is paid for risking their lives, to escort journalists in the battlefield. Instead, we initially had the superficial idea to pass the checkpoints with a common taxi from Erbil. The landscape began to change dramatically, dry deserted land, minefields and a lot of Kurdish Pesmerga sentinels. I was sitting in the front seat and probably my facial features were not shouting that I’m a tourist. So we passed the first checkpoint under the Iraqi flags. In the second checkpoint however, the guard realized the light-skin of my travel buddy. The officer was unbearable and our attempt to convince him was fruitless. He explained us in hand-language that at the next checkpoint we would definitely get arrested. He photographed our passports and deported us. Our disappointment was big, we wanted to see the tragic condition of Mosul and what war means. On our way back, I asked the taxi driver to call the “fixer” with which I had arranged in the first place, by begging her to come and pick us up. Indeed, 45 minutes later she was on the spot. The taxi driver demanded the entire amount of money despite the persistent negotiations and we were regretful for our reckless decision. My heart was beating like a drum from anxiety and the “fixer” was stressed as well. Luckily at the first three checkpoints she seemed to know the guards (having made some phone calls before) and we passed them with a simple greeting. In the 4th we were checked again for visa but she persuaded the guard to allow us.
On the road we were witnessing more and more collapsed buildings, bullet perforated walls, burned cars. We reach the urban area of eastern Mosul. This part has been hit less and has recovered. Life is trying to find its normal tempo in this dusty, dirty, chaotic Arab city with a multitude of damaged buildings. We cross one of the Tigris River bridges that have been restored. The next one in the background is destroyed. Τhe west side of the city, opens in a dramatic ruined scenery! Shock and awe! A ghost town, untold disaster. There is no building untouched, most have been extensively damaged, roofs and floors have collapsed, destroyed constructions with exposed iron frames, lying like dead giants. Burned and smashed cars, dust, and a first wave of sepulchral smell from the trapped victims. Souls that have been lost and will never be identified. We park the car and roam on foot. Few cars navigating the dusty deserted roads and some armed patrols. A bus has been blown over a roof. Few people are present in that chaos. Some children are fleeting in the narrow alleys of the old town. It must have been a beautiful, traditional town. Two men sitting in a store between the ruins are having some lunch. Next to it, is the city’s emblem, the 12th-century Great Al-Nuri Mosque with its famous leaning minaret. Unfortunately, the mosque has been completely destroyed, the minaret has been blown to dust. Here, in 2014 the jihadists proclaimed the foundation of their “caliphate”. On July 17th 2017, on their retreat in the Battle of Mosul, they chose to bomb the monument than surrendering it. The same fate had the ancient mausoleum of prophet Jonah. Everywhere there are signs that warn you not to touch any of the ruins. The sick mentality of ISIS has mined and trapped everything, even children’s toys.
A little further away, a family tries to rebuild their damaged home. These people stopped their work of building their bombed house, to meet us with joy, noble and trust. Another life lesson for all of us in the “modern world” nagging in misery, aloofness, envy, xenophobia. All the people we met were extremely friendly, they gave us their smile even in their untold sorrow. But you can never complacent in a conflict zone. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 “sleepers” ISIS fighters mixed with residents. Everyday dozens are arrested and interrogated.
At a central junction of the city, dredging machines are trying to clear the road. Large buildings are leaning by bombings, a huge trench has been opened up the road, a crane dismantling a defense tower, and a city bus trying to maneuver among the debris. At the edge of the road there is active ammunition, large caliber bullets, an RPG, baby clothes and shoes… Returning to the car, we had to check if it was trapped with explosives. We were wandering around the city. You can not get in most of the destroyed buildings because they are not demined, you can neither step on the rubble, you have to be always in alert.
We were looking of how to get atop a building to have a panoramic view of the ruined city. We were in a dead end, the car was struggling to pass between debris. A middle-aged man seemed like he lost his mind, he was unable to help us and shouted in his language. The main avenue by the river, next to the blasted bridge, near the mosque with the -full of holes- dome once had four-star hotels; now death is the only resident. Only one of them was safe to get in, as some workers tried to cluster that futile mess. On the terrace there were cracked sheet metal and a big hole on a wall. The view of the city was shocking. Wherever you looked, you could see broken, burned, collapsed buildings. Despair! I hope to live long enough to see this city revive sometime.
Inside this havoc, posters with the faces of politicians “decorate” the ruins. A car convoy appears to be celebrating in favor of a candidate of the forthcoming 14th May elections.
We moved to the neighborhood where the final battle took place. There was nothing standing still here. It is considered the most mined area on the planet. At the edges of the road you saw human bones, even whole corpses in advanced sepsis. The unbearable scent of people rotting under the ruins, all those that have not yet managed to be collected by volunteers, the flies, the heat, made the experience horrifying. The place was full of weapons’ magazines, suicidal belts of explosives, some of them active. Among the findings, a torn photograph, an id card, of people who are lost forever… From a small room in the house, over the past few days, 70 bodies have been recovered. Two steps below, a few months ago, the river was filled with human bodies. Collecting corpses under the estimated 8 million tonnes of mine-filled ruins is taking place at a very slow pace. Some officials have suggested the horrific solution of using stray dogs to eat the carcasses. But there are no dogs, only cats and rats.
We got into the car to leave when two armed men in uniforms shouted at us to stop. The “fixer’s” face got terrified, she told us not to open the windows, since ISIS fighters are often dressed in police uniforms. As I looked from the side mirror, they seemed authentic police officers to me, regardless that one of them was not over 17 years old, with a clean new uniform. They greeted us and we left the city to visit the town of Baktida, some kilometres away. A christian town that suffered a lot under ISIS occupancy.
The saddest travel experience of my life was coming to an end. Because travel is not just a leisure getaway for me, but also life experiences and lessons, getting to know the beauty of the planet but also of ugliness, usually coming from humans’ twisted nature. Maybe everyone should get a taste of both. It may contribute in our self-improvement.
A christian village that was desecrated by the jihadists
©Alexandros Tsoutis. May 2018