Driving to Badush takes hours. It’s not really so far, the road is just very erratic and largely unpaved and you have to loop down all the way south of Hamam al-Alil and then come all the way back up past West Mosul. But that’s what you have to do if you want to cover the North West Front. Earlier we’d passed the Federal Police base that was attacked by ISIS a week or so previously, causing significant attrition of the line and a number of deaths. As darkness falls and we bump along through the dust, with little to indicate what’s dirt road and what’s not (not being large areas that could well contain IEDs), there’s a definite feeling in the un-armoured car that perhaps territory known to be rife with ISIS isn’t the best place to be bumping along in the dark with no weapons (not that most of us would know how to use a gun if we had one).
When we finally reach a paved road, things do not improve much – someone has thoughtfully put a hell of a lot of time and effort into gouging through a meter wide swath of blacktop, right across the span of the entire road, every 25m or so, for really a lot of kms. We’re in a UTE, which helps, but something a bit more off-road would be handier for travelling at any speed through this little lot. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took whoever it was that did this. I suspect ISIS – they seem the strongest contenders tenacity and pig-headednesswise. Whoever it was left the Oleanders lined up down the central reservation intact – they’re doing marvellously, pale pink and white blooms glowing softly in the twilight.
I briefly ponder Things That Might Be Dangerous on this trip. There are the obvious ones: getting hit by sniper fire, or a mortar; ending up too close to a suicide car or vest wearer. Then there’s getting hit by shrapnel, or bumping into ISIS on a dark deserted road and getting kidnapped. Or accidentally driving over/stepping on an IED. And then less obvious, there’s getting raped by Iraqi army or Militia forces. That last one doesn’t sound or look especially probable – on the whole they appear to be almost entirely un-rapey in my (albeit limited) experience. But I’m assured that men who don’t even get to wank in peace and have been working for 7 months straight with next to no female interaction; men who are trained not to feel overly emotional about other humans; men who view Western looking women as synonymous with porn; men with nothing to lose because there’s an offensive starting tomorrow in which they may die, do sometimes get a bit rapey. There is enough else to worry about without giving that much space though. Or I suppose nothing at all to worry about, because bar being an idiot through taking unnecessary risks like going out at night unaccompanied, frequently leaving obviously well and recently used roads and paths and walking off road, or not wearing a flak vest and helmet, you don’t really have much control over the rest, so worrying about it is pointless. Better just to accept that while more likely than “usual” these things are still statistically unlikely to happen. I suspect that the fastest way to become seriously injured in this part of the world, is to attempt to use the pavements (sidewalks for those for whom pavement means the entire surface of the road). They are both lethal, deadly and those who created them clearly totally missed the conceptual point for their existence.
We are greeted by a really fat guy on our arrival at the ERD (Emergency Response Division) media base – which is (or was) someone’s house. It consists of buildings with living space on two sides of a central courtyard, with a third side taken up by a loo, wash room and animal shed (with no animals) and the final side is comprised of a high gate and wall. His name is Remi. He’s very smiley. Doesn’t say much. It turns out that he is a General. And his role is to prevent all members of the press from accessing anything even the teeniest remotest bit interesting to them. And to ensure that, should they accidentally manage to access something, they have been well briefed in the absolute forbiddenness to take pictures of it. No pictures of damaged vehicles. No pictures of injured or dead Iraqi soldiers, No pictures of Americans. No pictures of anything owned by Americans. Erm… What can we take pictures of General Remi? – Dead ISIS, we will show you dead ISIS. Great. That’s just, great. We can take pictures no one will print. We thought him a little over the top. His behaviour was somewhat akin to that of a paranoid 14 year old girl for the duration of the time we spent with him. Future events were to prove his paranoia entirely justified however – when members of your division rape, torture and kill civilians for fun and you let a journalist take pictures of that and he gets them published in Der Spiegel, it does not go down well and you do tend to become a little wary of the potential repercussions of having members of the press, uncontrolled by the likes of General Remi, about the place…
Everyone is very friendly. Chain smoking abounds. Ahmed, a media officer, is in fact so friendly that he repeatedly twists the nipples of our friend Makeen while punching him in the arm. In an act of gross miscalculation, Matthew – a long term photojournalist embedded with the ERD – presents Ahmed with a taser. We all look on in horror. It’s a gift that goes down exceptionally well. With Ahmed. Not so much with Makeen. Though Makeen does go down, all the way to the ground. Ahmed terrorises all of us over the next few days, both with the taser and by doing that thing where you point to something on someone’s collar, they look down and you bop them on the nose. Got me every single time. Never has a game of Rummy 500 felt quite so alarming as when played with Ahmed. And his taser. Ahmed’s Rummy 500/taser tactics involve eyeballing anyone who looks as though they may be about to score some points, while casually twitching his taser and occasionally setting it off if he suspects a particularly fine hand may be about to be melded. But Ahmed, it turns out, is not all playground banter and taser abuse – given half a chance he’ll gladly wax lyrical on his feelings. About all sorts of things. He talks openly of the numerous men he’s killed. Except they were ISIS, so he doesn’t consider them men. He Professes to still being able to see the eyes of his first through his scope as he killed him, with a crystal clarity that caused nausea at the time and still haunts him now. It was Ahmed who explained to me in no uncertain terms that I don’t know shit about what these men are capable of, I don’t know shit about the way they think about women who look like me, and I need to watch my ass. It was Ahmed who cried over the phone when he’d moved duty to the field hospital and spent days working with his injured, dying and dead division mates. Having to sign off your friends as dead for the record every day in the hospital is far harder, he says, than seeing people go down on the frontline.
The ERD Media Centre runs a media tour – this involves taking a humvee somewhere not very dangerous (I should caveat that with, it’s still Mosul – most people have probably never been anywhere with that sort of risk level in their lives, it’s just nowhere near any actual fighting). This is rumoured to involve staged shooting of automatic weapons and general leaping about of ERD staff as though they are actually in the really conflict-ey part of the conflict zone. Apparently, some journalists are happy with this. I do not know who they are, but do despair for the integrity of the industry. Our purpose was not the frontline at all. We wanted to bear witness to displaced civilians on their walk out of Mosul and subsequent journey to camps. These people are told to leave their homes as the frontline approaches, otherwise they’ll be in the way of airstrikes, mortar fire, snipers and suicide vehicles. But mainly airstrikes – civilians caught in airstrikes is not something that goes down well with the rest of the world. The thing is, they are usually between the Iraqi frontline and the ISIS frontline at that stage – necessitating a dash through sniper/mortar/suicide vehicle territory, which is usually rubbley, twisted metal strewn terrain, hard enough to cross without fearing deadly projectiles to the head. And they have to do this with their children and anything they can carry. Needless to say, they don’t usually try to carry much. Though birdcages (with birds in them – canaries and such, not birds you can eat) are strangely prevalent.
Once out, they walk to the nearest collection point, where the 9th or some other division of the Iraqi Army has usually organised trucks to transport them to the closest muster point, from where they probably have no idea where exactly they’re going. It’s worth noting that “out” means out of a place that, while being their home, is somewhere they have been forced to stay under ISIS rule since the 4th June 2014. Three long years. For some of them this is their entire life – there are plenty of babies and toddlers who have never known anything else. And plenty of older children who don’t remember anything else. Often they are described as “fleeing ISIS” – and they sort of are. But they’ve been not fleeing ISIS for 3 years and they’re still alive. It’s the heavy artillery and airstrikes of the Iraqi Army and coalition forces fighting ISIS that are more immediately flee-worthy. Though ISIS have been known to flood the conflict zone with civilians to create confusion and also to use already fleeing civilians as sniper target practice, or perhaps shooting some of them in the back of the head is supposed to be a deterrent to the rest. Their story is important, what they’ve endured needs to be understood. Not least by people with such a gross lack of understanding that they claim these people should stay and fight, and speak abhorrently about those who try to settle in other countries.
The ERD Media Centre would far rather we just did the media tour. Or went to the frontline. It takes really quite a while to explain that that isn’t what we’re here for. Plus we aren’t able to go anywhere near the frontline because it’s cloudy. And clouds mean no airstrikes. No airstrikes usually means no ground offensive. With no air cover, the risk of losing men while trying to push the line forward through the narrow, sniper ridden streets of Mosul is too high. It appears that the tactic de jour is to identify sniper positions, call in an airstrike, push forward once the sniper has been hit, hold the line, rinse and repeat. Airstrikes can also be called in on those occasions when a suicide vehicle is trundling merrily toward an Iraqi battalion. At least this is the way I understand it – but I am no battle strategist. I am also in no way keen to end up with an army unit as a suicide vehicle trundles merrily towards it. I’ve seen those things go off hundreds of meters away. Closer does not seem wise. Nor do I want to sit crouched behind a wall for hours waiting for a sniper in who’s range I am, to be killed before I can make a run for it. It’s too hot for that sort of thing for starters.
So we spend a day being closely escorted around Badush, by the ever watchful General Remi. We meet a few other Generals, a family who chose to remain in their home during the liberation of Badush from ISIS six weeks previously and twenty nine displaced families, with almost as many donkeys, living crammed onto a nearby farm. Remi makes it his personal business to ensure that we do not get anything remotely useful. Though we do manage to stumble upon an impromptu cow milking demonstration by an Iraqi Army soldier with questionable technique (luckily for him the cow is inside a bombed out house and hence not free to run far);
a fruit laden white mulberry tree, being ransacked by another Iraqi Army soldier;
some ERD soldiers killing time (and possibly fish) by chucking grenades into the Tigris river;
a fantastic chef who cooked us the best chicken and rice and also happened to be an Iraqi Army General (though I suspect his heart was more in the cooking from the looks of the strategy map on his boardroom wall); and some dogs eating dead cows.
While not what you’d term successful, it was all in all a pleasant day.
We finished it off with a quick trip to say hello to the New York Medics, stationed in a field hospital on the edge of town. General Remi had been truculently reluctant to let us go anywhere near them – which wasn’t really a problem, because all we wanted to do was say hi and let them know we were in the area – you never know when you might require a medic in these parts. But then a little man on a bicycle who is apparently frightfully important told him it was fine. So we went. We had walked up the drive, entered the courtyard in front of the hospital building and were chatting with a French medic when suddenly all hell broke loose and a man who had hitherto been languishing supine across a table while smoking a cigarette leapt up screaming blue murder and waving his arms. We examined the immediate area for the source of his distress and as he began flinging his arm in the general direction of the front gate, while roaring “GET OUT GET OUT OUT OUT OOOOOOOUT” it dawned on us that we were it. General Remi was mightily discomfited by this turn of events. To the point where he attempted to hide. General Remi is not the best at hiding places. Behind me is not the ideal spot for a fat man to go unnoticed. We got out.
By the next morning, it was both cloudy and the fact that the ERD do not stock coffee of any sort was starting to become a serious issue. So we decided to adjourn and began the long trek back around Mosul and across the Nineveh Plain, resolving to return for a re-match in the near future, or as soon as the sun came back out.
You can see more pictures here