As the war to retake the city from the Islamic State intensifies, a terrified population fears the worst.
By Donatella Rovera
MOSUL, Iraq — When they heard that there would be airstrikes on their neighborhood in eastern Mosul, Wa’ad Ahmad al-Tai and his family did exactly as they were told.
“We followed the instructions of the government, which told us, ‘Stay in your homes and avoid displacement,’” he said. “We heard these instructions on the radio. … Also leaflets were dropped by planes. This is why we stayed in our homes.”
Shortly afterward, the bombs came raining down. As the terrified al-Tai family huddled together, the house next door collapsed on them. Six people were killed there on the morning of Nov. 7, 2016, including Wa’ad’s 3-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
As I traveled through eastern Mosul earlier this month, I heard versions of this story again and again from families who had lost relatives in airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Filled with rage and grief, Mosul residents described how they were expressly told to stay in their homes and were then bombed inside them.
Amnesty International has repeatedly documented such incidents since the beginning of the military campaign last October. Now, Mosul has seemingly witnessed a surge in civilian deaths, with reports that airstrikes on March 17 killed more than 100 residents in the al-Jadidah neighborhood of western Mosul. Iraqi authorities initially said the civilian deaths resulted from an Islamic State attack, but U.S. military sources have since stated that the United States “probably had a role” and that they have opened an investigation.
Urban warfare is always fraught with dangers for the civilian population, and it would be naïve to hope that the military operation to recapture Mosul from almost three years of brutal Islamic State rule could pass without civilian casualties. The question is whether all possible precautions have been taken to minimize harm to civilians. Instructions by the Iraqi authorities advising Mosul residents to remain in their homes, even if they were well intentioned, may have resulted in avoidable casualties.
Before the military campaign it was extremely difficult for Mosul residents, estimated to number more than 1 million, to leave the city. Those caught trying to leave by the Islamic State risked brutal punishment or even death. Since the operation to retake the city began in October, nearly 300,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes.
Mosul is seen as the prize in the Iraqi battle against the Islamic State, but many residents told me they feel abandoned. Some Moslawis wondered aloud if these instructions were issued because the Iraqi government and the international community did not want the burden of looking after even more displaced people. This would be an unbelievably inhumane calculation — but walking around Mosul, it’s easy to see why people living there feel as if they are the last priority.
Life in Mosul is full of horrors. Many residents expressed acute despair at the Iraqi authorities’ and international community’s failure to provide support to recently recaptured areas, describing how they were left to dig through mountains of rubble with their bare hands looking for the bodies of their loved ones.
While surveying the site of an airstrike in Hay al-Dhubbat, a neighborhood in eastern Mosul, I came across a head in the rubble. Survivors and relatives at the scene said a green scarf identified it as that of a woman who was killed with her elderly parents in a coalition airstrike on Jan. 10. Elsewhere in the city, bodies of dead Islamic State fighters lay amid the rubble and on street corners, some partly eaten by stray dogs.
Mosul’s residents also have to cope with the fact that much of the city’s infrastructure — notably water and electricity networks — is in ruins. Women and children have resorted to hauling carts with water containers to distribution points, but even then residents have to use it sparingly. “We get enough for drinking and cooking, but there is not much left for washing,” one resident told me. More than two months after the area was recaptured, there is virtually no functioning medical facility in eastern Mosul. A few small clinics provide the most rudimentary primary care — hardly sufficient for a war zone.
Doctors and nurses there say they are working without salaries and with a severe shortage of drugs and equipment. At one clinic, staff showed me how two out of their three ambulances had broken down. People who have suffered horrible injuries are sometimes forced to go weeks or even months without proper care.
Not surprisingly, people are furious at so much destruction and question the timing and methods of the operation in Mosul.
“The Dawa’ish [Islamic State militants] were everywhere, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it,” said Mohammed, a resident of the Hay al-Dhubbat district who lost several relatives in a coalition airstrike. “If you challenged them, they would kill you. They ran this city for two and a half years, and they were rarely targeted during all that time. … Why now [are they] destroying our homes with our families inside, just to eliminate two or three Dawa’ish on the roof?”
The killing of entire families in their homes casts serious doubt on the coalition’s choice of targets and weapons. The Islamic State’s use of human shields is well-documented. Those carrying out strikes are aware of the risk to civilians and must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm. So why are Islamic State fighters who have forced their way onto rooftops or into courtyards of civilian areas being targeted with large bombs that flatten houses?
No wonder many people told me they feel as if they are paying for the crimes of the Islamic State. One man described the horrific moment his 5-year-old son was killed by shrapnel from a mortar fired, likely by Iraqi forces, into a densely populated civilian area: “His head was almost completely severed.”
Such tragic loss of life might not have been entirely preventable, but more could and should be done to reduce the risk as much as possible. The recent announcement of an investigation into the reported 150 civilian deaths by the U.S.-led coalition is welcome but long overdue. It’s crucial that this be independent, and more transparent and effective than other recent U.S. military investigations into high civilian-casualty attacks have been.
After the U.S. bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 42 and injured 43 in October 2015, an investigation was carried out as a result of intense international pressure but resulted in little more than a few administrative punishments. From the published findings, it is unclear why the attack was allowed to go ahead.
Disturbing questions continue to be raised about decisions made by Iraqi and coalition forces, and someone must answer them. If the futures of the people of Mosul, those who have suffered most under the Islamic State’s tyranny, are not taken into account, “victory” would ring hollow indeed.