The road to Mosul

Mosul, Iraq -- There are only about 80 kilometres (50 miles) between Arbil, the developing capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region, and Mosul, the last remaining Iraqi city held by the Islamic State group. But as I learned during two weeks covering the Mosul offensive, sometimes it only takes a few dozen kilometers to go from one universe to another, passing surreal worlds along the way.

Arbil, August, 2015. (AFP / Safin Hamed)

AFP photographers, video-journalists, drivers and I crossed those 80 kilometres almost every day, navigating poorly-paved roads, checkpoints, and towns scarred by both the jihadists’ two-year reign and the brutal battles it took to reach their last bastion in Mosul.

Our coverage was from that front line inside the city. But the journey itself -- the descent from bustling Arbil into war-battered Mosul -- was a story in its own right.

Every morning, we piled our flak jackets, helmets, laptops, cameras, and notebooks into an SUV and left Arbil with its ubiquitous shisha waterpipes, even in hair salons. We pulled onto the highway heading west, sleep-deprived and less talkative day by day.

We often stopped to buy fresh fruit in the town of Kalak, whose defining landmark is an inexplicably large fish statue. As we sped across the bumpy gravel towards the first set of checkpoints, the bags of bananas and oranges would be violently tossed around in the car’s trunk for nearly an hour. Once I made a tired joke about a fruit salad. No one laughed.

It was my first time working in Iraq, so navigating the maze of checkpoints taught me quite a few lessons, and fast.

First, checkpoints come in all shapes and sizes. Just because the single soldier leaning on a dirty plastic chair appears less intimidating than the two-story bunker surrounded by concrete barriers doesn’t mean that he’s less likely to make you wait nervously for an hour before turning you back.

A checkpoint near Mosul, October, 2016. (AFP / Bulent Kilic)

Second -- and this will sound trite, but it’s the best way I can think of putting it -- getting through checkpoints is like baking a cake, but the recipe changes every day. Sometimes you need a little less grinning and more making the right phone calls; other times, the perfect mix is an array of notebooks and cameras in the backseat and a familiar face manning the crossing.

Our first two checkpoints every morning were run by Kurdish security forces who peered over aviators at our press cards, then scribbled our names on a scrap of paper that we were to hand to the final Kurdish-manned security point less than 30 kilometres from Mosul.

A checkpoint near Mosul, November, 2016. (AFP / Odd Andersen)

Once we passed that point, we were in Iraqi federal territory, where the crossings were held by a mix of police, army soldiers, and Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) forces. For the first week, we could usually spot a familiar face -- like the lanky red-headed CTS fighter with a neon scarf -- and breezed through the last remaining checkpoint towards Mosul.

But by week two, the officers to whom we had become accustomed were flown to Baghdad for a break and a new contingent was manning the ultimate crossing.

“I don’t care how many times you were here last week, I don’t know you,” barked one CTS fighter, his eyes hidden behind plastic sunglasses and the rest of his face covered by a black balaclava.

Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) fighters outside Mosul, October, 2016. (AFP / Bulent Kilic)

We looked nervously at our driver, who opted for the charm-while-name-dropping strategy.

“Brother, you must have been on break from this difficult battle. We know how tired you’re getting, since we’ve been embedded with Commander Muntazar every day. Karkukli really is a tough neighbourhood,” our driver said smoothly.

The stern officer raised his eyebrows -- the only facial feature left uncovered -- and waved us through with a nudge of his rifle.

Once we cleared the last checkpoint, there was a 12-kilometre stretch of highway to the edge of Mosul proper. The golden plains gave way to what was once some kind of industrial zone, with hand-painted signs hanging over pastel-coloured shops on both sides of the road in Gogjali, the last district before reaching Mosul. Every day we passed signs like: “The Barbershop of Peace,” “Fiberglass of Love,” and “The Industrial Mosque.”

In most of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, ravaged by two years under IS and the fighting and bombing that forced the jihadists west, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Truck carcasses burned to a crisp lay on their side by storefronts with no windows or doors. Twisted metal gates bore messy graffiti identifying the garages as Sunni Muslim property, meaning they would be spared in the sectarian fighting in this area of Iraq.

The wasteland of Gogjali, early November, 2016. (AFP / Bulent Kilic)

At times it felt as if the shops had been abandoned decades ago, and we were driving through a harmless, if rusted, monument to a long-forgotten conflict. Other days it was almost like the storefronts were just worn-down two-dimensional models of a real town somewhere else. Think Blazing Saddles meets The Walking Dead meets… Mosul, I guess.

As we got closer, we could see more people strolling among the destroyed shops and homes -- if this was a ghost town, they were its ghosts. In early November, their faces were gaunt and almost expressionless. But day by day, life seeped slowly, unstoppable, back into the purgatory that was Gogjali.

One day, we noticed a shop reopen to serve as a distribution point for bottles of water. Later in the week, a teenage boy peddled a few packs of cigarettes and cheap biscuits splayed across an old wooden cart. When my colleague Rouba el-Husseini drove through about ten days later, Gogjali was vibrant -- residents had set up full-fledged fruit and vegetable stalls, butcher shops, and sweets stands.

On days when the battlefronts were relatively quiet, convoys of charter buses and construction trucks would whizz past us towards Khazer, carrying dozens of terrified families out of Mosul and towards any one of several camps for displaced people. But if instead we saw ambulances, sirens wailing as they zipped towards hospitals in Arbil, we knew it was already a bloody day for the city.

Gogjali’s low buildings soon fell away. Straight ahead was Mosul’s eastern entrance, still held by IS. And to our left, a massive cemetery also controlled by IS militants. So we swung a right onto a dirt road, entering the labyrinth of residential blocks that make up the eastern outskirts of Mosul.

After slicing through various stratospheres to reach it, we found Mosul had its own layers.

The first was made up of blocks of two-storey homes, each of them with a small front yard or garage that was sealed off from the main road by a metal gate painted with vibrant designs. Children peered at our car from behind teal and burgundy gates, and elderly men waved as they crouched in groups in front of golden-embossed doorways.

Mosul's eastern district of Khadraa, December, 2016. (AFP / Safin Hamed)

In that first layer, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were entering a warzone. But as we zigzagged deeper into the eastern edges, swapping our SUV for a CTS Humvee and donning our flak jackets and helmets along the way, the scenery got progressively more militarised, and dangerous.

Layer two featured the low hum of warplanes circling above, and rowdy Iraqi units using empty homes as bases. The decaying bodies of alleged IS fighters lay crumpled in ditches for days.

Bodies of Islamic State fighters lie on a street in Mosul's eastern Al-Intissar neighborhood as Iraqi soldiers talk to residents. (AFP / Odd Andersen)

The few civilians we did see were busying themselves with sweeping their front stoops -- a gesture that, at the time, I found incomprehensible given the context. But the more I saw them do it, the more it made sense. It was indeed a defiant attempt to return to normalcy, but perhaps it was also a gesture of realism.

Umm Ahmad moved in with her brother-in-law after CTS forces began using her home as one of their forward operating bases in the Samah district. Even as mortars crashed around her neighbourhood, she said she’d rather scrape out a living in partially-liberated Mosul “than go to a refugee camp, where I don’t know what will happen to me or my family.”

Mosul’s third layer -- and our final stop -- was the front line, which moved anywhere between five and ten blocks further into the city every day. Some days it was unbearably quiet, as CTS forces fortified their positions ahead of an early-morning push the following day.

The typical soundtrack to layer three was the crack of sniper fire, the occasional boom of a car bomb, and the incessant beeping and crackling voices of CTS forces communicating by walkie-talkie to give orders and coordinates, in flourish-filled Arabic that seemed at odds with the urgency of the situation.

“My heart! The light of my eyes! You are the heroes of Iraq, may God protect you. My soul, my heroes! But for God’s sake get out of the street and take cover from that sniper!” Lieutenant Colonel Ali Fadhel -- head of the Najaf Regiment -- spat into the walkie-talkie he was gripping.

A commander from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division calls his men back as they come under fire from IS fighters in Mosul, November 16, 2016. (AFP / Odd Andersen)

We usually spent our days in Mosul on the front lines.

But sometimes we covered developments at the chaotic field clinic on the edge of the city, or worked on a low-key feature about the mechanics repairing Humvee engines or replacing windows shattered by IS sniper fire.

Once we had enough material for the day, we packed up our equipment and pressed our proverbial rewind button. We switched back from our Humvee to our civilian car, peeling off our sweat-drenched flak jackets and pulling out our laptops to begin filing our photos, videos, and text stories.

An Iraqi boy smokes a cigarette in the village of Umm Mahahir south of Mosul, October, 2016. (AFP / Ahmad Al-rubaye)
A member of the Iraqi government forces smokes a cigarette in the village of al-Khuwayn, south of Mosul. (AFP / Ahmad Al-rubaye)


We barreled through Gogjali, barely looking up, and breezed through the checkpoints we had so much trouble getting through earlier that day, back towards that other universe in Arbil.


Nighttime Arbil, October, 2015. (AFP / Safin Hamed)


Maya Gebeily