“I have been to India,” he said, reeling off the names of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Mangalore. Indian cities had shades of where he lived in Iraq. With two million people, Mosul is diverse like Mumbai. Sprawling on the banks of the river Tigris, it is older than Delhi. Its old quarter is a maze of narrow lanes. The middle class lives in double-storeyed houses with front gardens and garages, while the working class is crammed into dense neighbourhoods. There is a familiar chaos in the markets. The rich send their children to English-medium schools.
There is a good reason why, on his trip to India, the lecturer of biomedical engineering, Khalil Nawfal Khalil, liked Mangalore the best. “It has many colleges,” he said, his bespectacled face breaking into a smile, as he sipped Americano coffee in a café in Erbil, 100 km east of war-torn Mosul.
Not one to waste time on small talk, the 38-year-old took a notebook and began to draw a map. “You want to know the details, right? I saw everything, I heard everything. I heard the rocket coming to me, very fast.”
In October, Iraqi forces launched a military operation with the support of a US-led coalition to dislodge the Islamic State or ISIS, which had captured Mosul in June 2014. Before the operation began, the Iraqi army had dropped pamphlets over the city asking residents to stay at home. Preparing for the siege, Khalil had stocked up food, fuel and water for his wife and two daughters. In their large house in Al-Habda, a salubrious residential area on the eastern side of the city, they were joined by a dozen relatives who moved from the western side, where the war was expected to be more intense because of narrow lanes and denser neighbourhoods. About 15 people crowded into the basement of their house.
“You see the place, three houses, that is the first, my house,” Khalil said, sketching out his street. “This place is for my uncle, Dr Mohamad, world-famous engineer. This place for my friend, Mr Mohamad. His father is an eye doctor.” Khalil’s house was in the middle.
Around 5 pm on January 10, Khalil heard the sound of someone trying to break down the gate at the back of his uncle’s house with a hammer. He looked through a small window. It was an ISIS fighter. Unable to break the door, the armed militant jumped over it, and opened the latch from the inside, letting in three of his mates. “They were talking with my uncle, fighting, saying why are you not opening door,” Khalil recalled.
Just then, there was another sound – this time, from the front of his house. Before he could open the door, an ISIS fighter had broken it. “He looked Russian. He spoke Arabic in the Aleppo accent, Syrian accent. He said, “Six of my brothers, Akhwan [Arabic word for brothers], are killed, I must take this house.’” Three other ISIS fighters, who looked Iraqi, followed him. They were dressed in camel-coloured uniforms and were carrying “bazooka, Kalashnikov, all types of bombs”, Khalil said.
“I told them we have a family in the house, 15 persons, we have children, we cannot leave the house.” The Russian fighter responded: “Let me go upstairs to take position for my sniper because I can see the army coming.”
As this was happening, ISIS fighters broke into the third house – the one that belonged to Khalil’s friend. They went straight into the garage.
In the first house, meanwhile, the fighters dragged up Khalil’s uncle and aunt to the roof. Their daughter, who happened to be in Khalil’s home, ran back into the house, “saying I must be with my parents”.
Khalil then heard a loud whoosh – the sound of incoming rockets. “I recognised it,” he said, having enlisted in the army for the mandatory one-year service after he completed college in 2000.
The first two rockets hit his uncle’s house. The impact pushed Khalil into the basement. A third rocket landed on his friend’s garage. A fourth hit a corner of his own house.
“Everything went dark,” he said. “All this happened in 15 minutes.”
New in the city
For the Hafidh family, their world collapsed even sooner. Around noon on January 5, a group of ISIS fighters broke into their house in Hay-al-Salam. Five minutes later, they were hit by an airstrike.
Unlike Khalil, the Hafidhs are not originally Mosalwis, as residents of Mosul are known. They had moved to the city in 2006 from Basra in southern Iraq. The family used to live on their orchard in Abu-al-Thasib, south of Basra, on the border with Iran. During the rule of the dictator Saddam Hussein, when Iraq went to war with Iran, the military took over their orchard. “We had a lot of trees there,” said Nael Toufique Abdul Hafidh, the head of the family, a man in his fifties, who spoke in Arabic even though he understood English. “They came and destroyed all the trees. They turned the orchard into a military position to watch the other side.”
The family then moved to Basra city where Hafidh started a small infrastructure firm that implemented water and sewage projects for the local government. In 2003, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in an invasion led by the US, the country was thrown into chaos. Shia leaders who had felt marginalised under Hussein took control, provoking a backlash from Sunni extremists. In 2006, a car bomb exploded in Basra. Hafidh’s brother-in-law and nephew were sitting at home when the police came and arrested them. “We are Sunnis,” he explained, “therefore, they came and took us for being the ones behind the attack.” The two men were released four days later. They were not physically harmed, but they were humiliated. It was enough for the family to leave Basra and move to Mosul, a Sunni-majority city, where they had relatives.
Hafidh’s son Mosab was enrolled in the technical college. His three daughters, Nawal, Baraa’ and Mariam, joined school. Hafidh continued his business laying water and sewage pipes in the city – the profits were lower but the family was content.
Then, came the storm from Syria. In June 2014, armed Sunni militants crossed over the desert of Syria into Mosul. Some local leaders welcomed them. “They thought they could form their own government,” said Hafidh. But the fighters had other plans – their leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a global caliphate called the Islamic State from Mosul. He invited Muslims from around the world to come and live under the rule of the sharia or Islamic law.
All this while, Hafidh had considered himself conservative – he prayed five times, he wore a beard, he did not smoke. But he wasn’t prepared for the hardline version of Islam that ISIS imposed on the city’s residents. His daughters had to be pulled out of school. Every time, they stepped out, they needed a male companion, and they had to cover every inch of their bodies.
Hafidh’s daughter, 21-year-old Nawal, who had been listening to the conversation from behind the door, stepped into the living room of her aunt’s house where the family had taken shelter. The red velvet sofas, the divan, the floral carpet and the showcase in the living room were reminiscent of India. So was the way the young woman shed her initial hesitation and took charge of the conversation.
She brought out the dress she had to wear under ISIS: the abaya, or loose-fitting gown, gloves, socks, niqab, or face veil with slits for the eyes, and an eye-shield on top of it. “We could hardly see when we went out,” she said. Any deviation was punished with fines, whiplashes and street executions.
Life under ISIS
Khalil believes few original Mosalwis supported ISIS.
“In Mosul, we have three kinds of people,” he said. “Not Shia-Sunni.” He was talking about the differences of social class. “We have old Mosul people, like me, born here. Second type, Arabs from around Mosul, who hate us, because they don’t have the [same kind of] houses. Third type is from Tal’Afar” – a Turkmen town southwest of Mosul.
According to Khalil, the second and the third category of people joined ISIS, while the first type largely abstained.
Hafidh put it differently: the illiterate people joined ISIS, while the educated abstained.
Yet Khalil also claimed that ISIS fighters had very high-levels of technological skills. “They had modern instrumentation,” he said. He once saw an ISIS fighter – “he was Chinese”, possibly an Uighur – repair an MRI machine.
As a biomedical engineer, Khalil had been initially wooed by ISIS. “The first time, they said, ‘you can come to the college and teach ISIS people.’ I said I forget everything, my information, my engineering.” They offered him the use of internet to repair an X-Ray machine but Khalil said, “If I repair this machine, I might destroy it”. He explained: “Because if they catch you, they don’t leave you. They could even take me out of Mosul.”
With their skills rendered redundant, their salaries stopped by the Iraqi government, Mosul’s urban professionals withdrew into their homes. The cascading effects on the local economy were disastrous. Nawal’s cousin, who sold clothes for a living, no longer had customers. “No one had money to buy food. Will people buy clothes?” said Malala Toufique Abdul, Nawal’s aunt. The fuel shortages in the winter meant people burnt food to stay warm. Those who could afford it, paid smugglers to help them leave the city.
Said Hafidth: “They used to take US$2,600 for each person. We are six people – we needed US$ 12,000-US$15,000 to get out if the city. Where can I have this kind of money?”
The advance of the army
Then, the war started.
Hafidh had been following the news over radio. Though ISIS had banned television in the city in 2014, the family still secretly watched it. Mosul’s residents had found innovative ways to hide satellite dishes. A doctor told me he emptied a water cooler and hid the dish inside it. But once the war started in October, it got too risky – ISIS was killing anyone caught watching TV.
Over the radio, Hafidh had heard that the army had taken Hamdaniya, Bartella, Gogjali, towns and suburbs east of Mosul. But he didn’t know they were at his doorstep, when on January 5, around noon, a group of ISIS fighters burst into his living room, where the family was huddled. They had entered the house by pumping bullets into the lock of the front gate.
“One of them looked Chinese,” Nawal recalled, “while the others were Iraqis, speaking Arabic in the Mosalwi accent. They were all equipped with weapons, but they were retreating, running away from the army. They said we are not here to harm you, we just want to pass through your house.”
As they went into the guest room, Nawal’s mother started to scream. “She was really frightened. We were telling her, please calm down, because we were afraid we will be killed.”
More than anything else, Nawal was worried about their mobile phones and laptops. Had the ISIS fighters spotted the devices, they would have killed the family, she feared. “My brother immediately collected the phones and laptop, and went into the room at the back to put the stuff inside the closet.” Nawal went into the room next to him.
Just then, a rocket hit the neighbouring house. It brought down their house as well.
“There was smoke coming out, we could hardly breathe. We could only hear the sound of concrete blocks falling down,” Nawal recalled. “Mother was calling out the names of neighbours.”
The young woman was frozen, stunned by what had happened, till she slowly realised she could move. Removing the blocks one-by-one, she stood up. Using a door at the back of the house, that led to a neighbour, she ran out on the street, where the army saw her and started to shoot. “They thought I was ISIS,” she said.
Fortunately, some neighbours intervened on her behalf. Nawal then asked the soldiers to come and rescue her family. They refused initially, wary that it could be a trap laid by ISIS. Eventually, they decided to go, taking along the army media crew embedded with the unit to shoot its victories.
In a dramatic video, soldiers can be seen pulling out Nawal’s family from the rubble, while gunshots can be heard in the background. ISIS fighters were evidently still in the area, engaging the army, which is why the soldiers retreated before the rescue was over. Nawal’s mother, father and sisters were taken to the hospital, but her brother, Mosab, 23, was not found.
For a week, the family called their neighbours, asking them to look for Mosab. “But everyone was quite afraid to get close to the house, no one approached,” Nawal said.
It took eight days for the army to took control of the neighbourhood. The family went back and found Mosab’s body. Five people in the next door house had also died. So had four ISIS fighters. While the bodies of the civilians were cleared, those of the ISIS fighters are still lying under the rubble, rotting away.
‘Why use rockets?’
All 15 people in the basement of Khalil’s house survived the airstrike.
When Khalil stepped out on the street, he saw an ISIS fighter supporting an injured mate. “He asked me to help. I said no...I wanted to shoot him. But I stopped because I have a wife, a daughter.” Eventually, the fighter fled, leaving behind his mate with a broken leg. The army shot him, even though he was alive, and his suicide vest exploded, causing more damage in the neighbourhood, said Khalil.
The survivors took refuge in a house across the street. On the next street, they spotted an army unit. Khalil confronted the commander. “I told him we are family, why you used rockets,” he said. The commander responded: “I don’t care. I must fight the ISIS. I see you, I see ISIS in your house, I sent an order, the rocket is come. ”
The rockets had been fired from the Qayyarah airbase, 60 km south of the city, Khalil was told.
“But you have everything. You are a soldier. You have camera, radars, modern guns, you can fight ISIS with snipers, why you used the rocket. He said, I use the best, that’s the best I have,” Khalil recalled. “That’s not the best, that’s very bad.”
Khalil said the soldiers refused to accompany him as he went back to search for his uncle. He did not get very far – ISIS snipers shot in his direction from a government building on the other side.
Another two days passed before Khalil could go back to the houses. He found pieces of his uncle, and the charred head of his uncle’s daughter, Emaan, lying in the rubble of his house.
“We lost everything,” said Khalil. “We lost a very famous person.”
Khalil’s uncle, Dr Mohamad Tyeb Al-Layla, 70, was a renowned professor of civil engineering. He had played in a role in getting UNESCO’s help to preserve the al-Hadba’, or the hunchback, the 900-years old slanting minaret of the Great Nur al-Din Mosque, one of Mosul’s landmarks. His wife, Fatima, was a gynaecologist.
The US-led international coalition conducts strikes “coordinated with and in support of the government of Iraq using attack, bomber, fighter, and remotely piloted aircraft as well as rocket artillery against ISIL targets”. It claims to take “extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties, [but] in some incidents casualties are unavoidable”.
Its daily reports have references to “ISIL-held buildings”. For instance, its report for January 5 said:
Near Mosul, three strikes engaged two ISIL tactical units; destroyed three ISIL-held buildings, three supply caches, two mortar systems, a fighting position, and a VBIED; damaged 24 supply routes; and suppressed two mortar teams.
For January 10, it reported:
Near Mosul, three strikes engaged three ISIL tactical units; destroyed four fighting positions, two vehicles, an ISIL-held building, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher; and damaged 39 supply routes, three tunnels, and a front-end loader.
Houses are also buildings.
The coalition’s civilian casualty reports have so far not accounted for the deaths in Khalil’s and Hafidh’s houses.
An airstrike on a house in Al-Jadeda neighbourhood on March 17 killed more than 100 civilians. One of the two survivors has contested the army’s claims that ISIS fighters had taken position on the roof.
Airstrikes have killed 1,254 people in western Mosul in March and April alone, according to Iraq Body Count, an independent group that monitors civilian casualties. The coalition has acknowledged just 44 civilian deaths in airstrikes in the city since November.
Both Khalil’s and Hafidh’s families feel a sense of utter disbelief that their homes were targetted, despite the Iraqi forces knowing that civilians were inside.
Nawal said her family had been waiting for the Iraqi army. “We thought they would come and we would collaborate with them by giving them information about the location of ISIS. We didn’t realise we would be bombed.” Not only is her brother Mosab dead, her younger sister Baraa’ has lost her vision in the right eye.
The tragedy for both the families did not stop at the airstrikes. Five days after their neighbourhood was taken by the army, four of Khalil’s relatives stepped out of the house. They didn’t go too far, when one of them stepped on an IED. Three were seriously injured.
On March 26, when eastern Mosul had returned to a normal rhythm of life, Nawal’s cousin, Yusuf Najeeb, went to the Nebi Yunus market. Mortars shells exploded, sparking fire in cosmetic and perfume shops, killing 15 people. Najeeb was one of them.
There has been no compensation for the deaths or the damage to property.
Nawal has started going back to school.
Khalil has moved his family to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, an autonomous region in North Iraq. He prefers living among Sunni Kurds than the Shia Arabs of Baghdad. He believes the Shia-dominated Iraqi army deliberately maximised casaulties among the Sunnis of Mosul. He eventually wants to move back to his city. But for some years, he would rather go abroad for a PhD. “Maybe Canada, maybe Germany,” he said, pausing to smile. “Or maybe India.”
Read more in Scroll’s coverage of the war in Mosul here.