Correspondent Reflects On Battle For Mosul

Dec 29, 2019
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We've been taking a look at the decade as it comes to a close and asked our correspondents to tell us about one story that stood out the most for them. Today, we look at Iraq and the large city of Mosul. Two years ago, U.S.-backed Iraqi troops pushed ISIS from the city. It took nine months of ferocious fighting. NPR's Jane Arraf, who's covered Iraq for 20 years, tells us what the decade revealed to her.

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JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: To cover war and its aftermath is to be plunged into another world - one where it's normal for people to be trying to kill each other, where no one thinks anything of bodies lying in the street unless it's the body of someone they knew. In Mosul two years ago, we walked through the rubble as U.S. fighter jets still flew above, and Iraqi troops chased the remnants of ISIS. I'd covered war in Iraq since 2003, and most of the major battles after - Fallujah, Samarra, Najaf, Tal Afar.

Mosul, though, was different. It had mostly escaped all-out war until this battle to liberate it from ISIS. When it was over, the historic part of the city was - well, almost gone, along with at least 5,000 civilians, more than the number of ISIS fighters killed. The devastation was like nothing I'd ever seen.

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MANAL IDREES: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: In the street, we met a woman named Manal. The neighborhood was still off-limits to residents because ISIS had laid explosives. But she had come looking for the body of her son, who was killed when a building collapsed on top of him. We went with her.

She says Mosul is lost as we walk down these streets that used to be her neighborhood.

IDREES: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Everything is destroyed. You can't see a single house standing. It's all piles of rubble in the street, wires hanging down, metal. You can't drive down the street. There's - even the street itself is broken. The only people in the street are special forces and civil defense workers and civilians who have come back to try to bury their dead.

IDREES: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: She says, "come, come. See what they've done to Mosul." And we follow her because so much of reporting is not looking away, because the people you're reporting on don't have the luxury of looking away.

The headquarters of the civil defense forces was where civilians went to identify family members killed during the battle. They would look into these black plastic body bags or go with civil defense workers who hadn't been paid in three years to retrieve bodies buried under the rubble. Entire families were killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: A woman who had just buried her husband identified the body of her daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, including an 18-month-old baby who died in the rubble of an airstrike. A worker took the gold earrings out of the young woman's ears and handed them to the mother.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "Is this what you call liberation?" the mother asks me. "Why did they kill civilians?"

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ARRAF: We know at least 5,000 civilians died because we went to the morgue. There, we were told a lot of them were women and children, most of them killed when houses hit by Iraqi, U.S. and coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS collapsed. ISIS wouldn't let civilians leave. We talked to grave diggers and survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: A year after the battle at a university forum, I asked the prime minister and commander in chief during the fighting, Haider al-Abadi, about all the casualties

HAIDER AL-ABADI: I - every time I asked for number of women and children among the civilians - I'll give you this data, and you go and check - 1,400 casualties, there were only eight women and children.

ARRAF: I'm sorry.

AL-ABADI: Eight...

ARRAF: You were saying...

AL-ABADI: Only eight out of 1,400.

ARRAF: You were saying there were only eight women and children killed in Mosul.

AL-ABADI: Yes. I mean, these were under the deputies.

ARRAF: Eight. I haven't lived through the horror of the families of Mosul. I've only seen the aftermath. Even then, it's almost incomprehensible to imagine what that must be like, how people come back from that kind of trauma and go on with their lives. But for the most part, they do. Mosul was under ISIS occupation for three years. There were public executions. ISIS banned almost everything, including music.

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ARRAF: When Mosul emerged from the shadow of ISIS, so did those who survived, and they started bringing the city back to life. They reopened an arts center, where I listened to a group of local musicians jam with a visiting cellist.

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ARRAF: Under ISIS, some of the musicians had buried their instruments in their gardens or played very quietly in secret. On this day, they were improvising, creating something new and beautiful after all that destruction.

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ARRAF: Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.