Dead ISIS fighters, victims left to rot in Mosul’s ruins
Mosul’s body collector cuts an unlikely figure in a Mickey Mouse top, pink cardigan and floral headscarf. A diamante-studded bracelet flashes on her wrist.
She seems distinctly unperturbed as she gives a tour of the execution chambers and rotting corpses of Mosul’s Old City. Suroor al-Husseini is 24 and although she trained as a nurse, little even in the Iraq of Islamic State can have prepared her for this work.
“One there, two, yes, three,” she says. She has a practised eye. The rags of camouflage material lodged in the piles of rubble would be indistinguishable from other rubbish to most eyes, but closer inspection reveals bones and fragments of flesh. What looked like a large well-shone pebble is the end of a thigh bone.
“Here there was a pile of 12 suicide belts,” she says as we pass. I asked earlier who defuses those — some bodies come adorned with them. “Oh, I do,” she said, showing me a mobile phone photograph of herself picking intently at wires with a pair of pliers.
“Who trained you to do that?” I asked, trying not to sound startled. “I worked it out,” she said.
It is hard to know which thought is more stunning. Is it the single fact of Ms Husseini and her cheerful sangfroid? Or is it that the combined weight of the Iraqi army, police and air force, an international armada of F-16s, Tornado and Rafale fighter bombers, as well as the SAS and their French and US counterparts were brought to bear to expel a few thousand Islamic State fighters — and then no authority could be bothered to pick up the bodies? It is nine months since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul’s “liberation”, and the bodies are still there. It took four months for Ms Husseini to realise that she would have to do it herself. It was another two before she managed to get council permits.
Since they started in January, she and a small team of volunteers have collected 650 corpses from the wreckage of the Old City. She estimates that at least 1000 remain, an entirely believable figure based on the ranks of collapsed and still unexamined houses, as well as the examples that lie openly in view. Others, too, have taken it upon themselves to do what Ms Husseini assumed someone better equipped would deal with. As the weeks went by with nothing done to clear the mess, another group of young people started a “dumper campaign”, raising cash and calling for anyone with a dump truck to come forward.
Mosul ought to be a massive construction site by now but there is so little rebuilding that dumptruck owners had little to do. The group hires them, paying $US1 a trip to carry debris out of the city.
Forty thousand trips later, and the effect is a drop in the ocean. The Old City still looks much as it did when the last Islamic State fighters surrendered. It is hard to explain, still less to justify, the apathy shown by the Iraqi government and its international backers in relieving the plight of Mosul’s people. During the war the people here were portrayed by Iraq’s backers as victims, either of ISIS or of the sectarian discrimination that made some of them initially welcome the jihadists. Now the war is largely over, everyone seems to have forgotten them again.
A lot is left to charities. An elderly wheelchair-bound woman, who asks just to be called Mrs Hajer, said she had lost four of her six sons, three of them policemen murdered or “disappeared” by Islamic State. The fourth died last April, a month after being crippled by a booby-trap bomb ISIS fighters left outside his house as his neighbourhood was stormed by the army. His widow, Fatima, 35, is looking after their three children and her mother-in-law, reliant on food baskets and $US20 a month from a local mosque. “I can’t afford to buy them clothes,” she says. Her brother and sisters would help if they weren’t suffering similarly.
Her only other support comes from Save the Children, which has arranged school places for the children and is seeking a government pension for Mrs Hajer.
Rebuilding has begun in less damaged parts of west Mosul, but residents say the work will stop after next month’s election. They have few expectations from a new government.
The general supposition is that the authorities, and particularly the Shia-led central government, are enacting a form of collective punishment on Iraq’s largest Sunni city, which was a hotbed of radicalism even before ISIS seized it outright in 2014.
Ms Husseini comes from a middle-class neighbourhood bordering the Old City and was fed up and outraged with the smell of bodies. She also thought of her 14year-old sister, buried in the garden, at least temporarily, after being killed in a coalition airstrike.
She has made discoveries that in normal times, even in the Middle East, would have made frontpage news. In one room she found 150 bodies, all shot through the head, in two layers: women and children underneath and men, killed more recently, on top. It was not clear who killed them.
Further down the road, in a home overlooking the river, she found 30 corpses. The youngest victim, she said, was two months old. No one has yet thought to investigate what is clearly the scene of some sort of war crime, despite her efforts to alert anyone who might be interested. “It is shameful,” is her only conclusion.
We finish the tour in the shadow of a pile of rebar and broken walls, with the upside-down shells of burnt-out cars leant against them. Music drifts across the river from a privately operated fun fair that has reopened, a reminder that even stories of the worst government sloth can also be told as examples of human resilience: hers, in this case.
“I think they just don’t want us doing this,” she said. As we walk away, we look down to see a single skull by the kerb, a neat bullet-hole front and centre. If Mosul needed to be taught a lesson, it has certainly had it.
Volunteers recover human remains in Mosul last week