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


Suroor al-Hus­seini

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