“The Iraqis seemed delighted at the prospect of driving a western journalist around”
So, the war is over in Mosul and ISIS defeated. Well, almost. There are still a few militants lurking in tunnels under the Old City and the announcement of liberation has made it harder to get access than when the Iraqi forces were actively engaged in combat.
Our mission is to get to the banks of the River Tigris, the final area of Mosul that was liberated and which apparently turned into something of a killing field. Rumours abound but it can’t be reported unless we can get access. In the morning, myself and a handful of other journalists make it up to the brow of the hill and hang out with a group of Iraqi soldiers.
From the top of their half- destroyed house, we can see the river and a deserted expanse of rubble leading down towards it. This is all that’s left of this section of the historic Old City, after a campaign of air strikes trying to eradicate ISIS’S last desperate defence of the city pretty much flattened the whole lot.
Then we get told to leave. Mind you, the 50 degree heat is so unbearable, we’re almost relieved. After a few hours, we try again, hitching a lift with a truck delivering water and food to military positions. We are stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. “No journalists allowed,” they beam. We try everything, including pleading with a military commander, but it’s all to no avail. We are sent back again. Now on foot, we stomp back, sweat pouring under our heavy flak jackets, discussing the possibility of getting smuggled through the checkpoint in the back of an ambulance.
Between the Humvees lining the broken street, there’s a lovely battered old Series III and I pause to chat to a couple of Special Forces soldiers standing nearby. It was an ISIS Land Rover before, they tell me enthusiastically, and now it’s been repurposed by the Iraqi Special Forces, as a support vehicle for the armoured bulldozer unit.
Coincidentally, their military attire and vehicles are black. All they needed to do to the Land Rover, painted black by ISIS, was to change the stickers on the doors and bonnet from ISIS ones to those of Iraqi Special Forces.
I become so engaged with the conversation, my fellow journalists have vanished, defeated by boredom or the unbearable rays of the sun. They must have proceeded on to the field hospital without me. A five-minute stroll is a mission in this heat, so I figure their walking speed should buy me another ten minutes.
“Please can you take me to the field hospital?” I ask the Special Forces guys in crap Arabic. I really don’t fancy walking this road alone. The city is technically liberated, but yesterday a few rogue ISIS militants were still popping up.
Iraqis love a mission. Any time, any place, they’re usually up for it. The guys seem delighted at the prospect of driving a random western journalist around and I soon find myself crammed into the middle seat between two hefty Iraqis. We bump down the ruined street with me trying to understand what they’re saying, since they have misinterpreted my ability to string a few words together in Arabic as being fluent.
When we meet an ambulance, I tell them to stop just in case it’s got my fellow journalists in the back. I climb out and open the back door and I’m confronted by three faces, wide-eyed with guilt, cameras awkwardly compressed between their knees and chins. “Any room for a little one?” I ask hopefully. They shake their heads.
I explain in gestures to my Special Forces guys that we must quickly follow the ambulance and we pile back in. As we approach the Iraqi Army checkpoint, I pull my newly-acquired army cap low over my eyes and try to assume a masculine posture.
The ambulance cruises through the checkpoint but my disguise fails me. “You can’t take that journalist up there,” the soldier tells the Special Forces guys. “She’s not a journalist,” the driver replies vaguely, waving him away. The soldier takes offence and puffs himself up into a posture of selfimportance. “She is a journalist and they’re are forbidden here. You cannot go.”
The driver carries on talking and then suddenly loses his temper and says something to the effect of “who are you, an ordinary soldier, to tell me, a Special Forces soldier, where I can and can’t go and what I can and can’t do?” to the now deflatedlooking guy on the checkpoint. We drive on, past the stinking ISIS corpses, crumpled cars and demolished buildings, with the Iraqis still laughing uproariously about the checkpoint incident.
They pull up behind the ambulance and let me out. After thanking them profusely, I climb slowly up towards the brow of the hill hoping that, as far as access goes, it might be a case of third time lucky.
Thom Westcott is a British freelance journalist who has written for the Times and Guardian, and now mostly spends her time reporting from Libya