24 April 2017

Is there any hope amid the rubble of Iraq?

By Jamie Janson

Two explosions suddenly boom across Mosul. Barricaded in a burnt out hospital and surrounded by a crowd of women, men and children begging for water, I’d forgotten that the Iraqi Army and Islamic State were battling for control of the city only a couple of miles away.

Overhead a tiny drone is just visible. I can only hope it belongs to the Iraqi army, and isn’t a grenade-laden weapon belonging to IS. I wonder what our chaotic attempt to hand out water must look like from above.

We had started out at dawn from Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Our three-truck convoy – loaded with big office water cooler bottles – wasn’t organised by some international relief organisation, but a group of young citizens of Erbil. As with so many other crises that have recently hit our planet, in the absence of an adequate government or NGO response, people are using social media to organise their own aid efforts.

We are passed, as we leave the city, by pick-up trucks packed with armoured soliders, speeding towards Mosul. Then, once we’ve crossed the Great Zab river, unofficial boundary of Iraqi Kurdistan, the checkpoints begin. The driver will have to explain himself – and the two “Ameriki” in the truck – at least 30 times today.

On several occasions, our passage through these ad hoc checkpoints – sometimes an elaborate collection of concrete blocks and machine gun positions, sometimes a bored soldier in a plastic chair – is eased by the donation of a heavy water bottle.

Driving West, the undulating green landscape changes. It’s like a giant has gone on the rampage, laying waste to everything: the ground is torn up, bridges caved in, buildings have chunks kicked out of them.

As we leave the main road and wind our way on dirt roads through deserted villages, the damage gets progressively worse and feels more intimate. Houses are pocked with bullet holes, firing ports have been knocked through walls, and the sides have been blown out.

Trenches are gouged across the fields for as far as the eye can see. They cut across roads, slash their way through villages. Some look new, some are already overgrown with grass from last year.

In Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq, we pass the toppled steeple of a church and a huge cross being repaired by workmen. There are enormous refugee camps filled with people from Mosul and the surrounding villages who are now stuck in limbo in orderly rows of white UNHCR labelled tents.

We approach Mosul from the South, where huge multi-storey buildings are pancaked, and toppled electricity pylons litter the ground. Somewhat incongruously a colourful umbrella is propped over the turret of an armoured car; the face of a Shia saint is depicted on a carpet wrapped across the front of a pick-up truck. Flags flutter from every vehicle, windscreens are bullet-starred.

We British volunteers stand out a mile in our hi-viz vests. Perhaps it’s a devious plan, we joke, so that we draw the fire of IS snipers from the other, more useful aid workers.

The IS fighters are burrowed into the Old Town in West Mosul, along with up to 400,000 trapped residents who were told to stay put by the Iraqi Government – before it became too late to escape. The fighting has paused, in the wake of the civilian deaths from US airstrikes, but when it starts again, so too will the grisly slaughter. When one side doesn’t seem to mind dying, and the other doesn’t hesitate to lob bombs into densely crowded neighbourhoods, the result is inevitable.

After a long wait on the outskirts, the trucks bump forward into Mosul. Only one thing comes to mind: Stalingrad. There is total devastation, rubble and shattered buildings. A public monument lies smashed in pieces. A field strewn with boulders turns out to be a cemetery.

The smooth surfaces of the city have been burnt or blasted by shrapnel. Brown dirt has been kicked up and covers everything. A city is only a thin concrete skin over the earth beneath. The skin of Mosul has been gouged and tortured into an obscene, filth-caked wound.

The convoy pauses at a crossroads and people appear. They quickly gather round the trucks and some start to climb the sides to reach the water. It would be chaos to attempt to distribute it here. And we are told to head to a nearby hospital. The convoy moves off with people clinging onto the truck. We reach what’s left of Mosul General Hospital, partially collapsed, the walls blackened from fire.

This was the scene of some particularly brutal streetfighting between IS and the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division.

The rest of the crowd catches up and starts to queue outside the hospital entrance. A volunteer hands out green Post-it notes which are exchanged for water.

Inside the courtyard, the cumbersome water bottles are unloaded and handed out, but it is a slow process and it gets harder and harder to keep the people back from the broken gates. However fast the bottles are produced, the press of the crowd gets greater.

The shouting and gesticulating gets more urgent. One man holds out a Red Crescent identity card. “Do you need to come into the hospital?” we ask.

“No,” he replies,”I just need water, please, just one.” Children throng but are turned away. When one boy continues to press forward he is shoved roughly back. Adults only.

I hold out my arms trying to act as a human turnstile between the water and the pressing crowd. Every face is staring, imploring me to understand, to show some compassion. But there isn’t enough to go round.

Eventually the frustration becomes overwhelming and our amateur distribution descends into chaos. Men surge forward and it looks like a riot might start. But with the authority that hi-viz bestows, we manage to hold back the bodies and fix the broken gate.

No-one here wants chaos, these people just want to survive. The crowd presses against the bars shouting at the aid workers. But maybe it isn’t as angry as it looks – coming from a more emotionally repressed part of the world, many Middle Eastern conversations look more dramatic than I’m used to. However, it looks pretty angry.

I stand in front of the gate, trying not to catch anyone’s eye, waiting for  a proper distribution system to be organised. Some faces smile at my awkwardness.

One of the volunteers has stayed outside the gate to sort through the myriad pieces of paper and identity cards thrust at him, in order to indicate who should receive a water bottle.

One by one the containers are hoisted over the seven foot gate and grabbed by outstretched hands. It’s a laboriously slow and exhausting process. And overwhelmed by the desperation of the crowd, our volunteer has to haul himself over the gate to safety.

It’s hellish. The crowd is pressed against the bars, their hands outstretched with their tattered documents. Older men are making what look like impassioned and entirely reasonable speeches arguing for water. Speeches are made back. I have no idea why the debate is taking so long.

The Post-it triage is abandoned and the bottles are hoisted over the gate as fast as possible to the waiting hands and eventually the last truck is empty.

However the crowd can see the water left behind for the hospital and continue to press against the gate, gesticulating. We try to tell them there is no more, then inexplicably someone starts handing out some of the hospital water.

Finally, what feels like hours later, enough people have dispersed that the gate can be safely opened, and the trucks back out of the hospital courtyard. I won’t ever forget the faces of children begging for drinking water, the man holding his fingers to his lips, asking for food in vain as we drive away from the hospital.

This war has trampled over hundreds of towns and thousands of square kilometres, maiming and destroying countless lives; it’s a war directly descended from the US and Britain’s disastrous invasion and destruction of Iraq 14 years ago.

But it’s hard to understand such a complicated geopolitical situation from a snapshot, and easy to jump to simplistic conclusions. In fact, the Iraqi Government / Kurdish offensive against IS is grinding into its sixth month and the caliphate is being forced to retreat, trampling a carpet of civilian victims beneath it. The US-backed Iraqi army that collapsed so spectacularly in 2014 is now gradually prising the Old City of Mosul from their grip, and looks set to recover the rest of their territory afterwards.

As I sit in Erbil’s main square, watching the fast-paced business of a bustling city, I can see the consequences of war – the high-rise skeletons of stalled building projects, the wealthy sealed-off enclaves guarded with kalashnikovs, the belching diesel generators everywhere propping up the city’s faltering electricity supply.

Progress towards peace in Iraq will inevitably be slow, and rebuilding the destroyed cities will take time. But now that IS is in retreat, perhaps the country shattered by years of war may finally find some room to recover.

Jamie Janson is currently travelling along the refugee route and volunteering in camps along the way.