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Mosul: A Dystopian Still Life

Mosul is just an hour's drive from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. In Erbil, the Majidi-Land amusement park is open, families are sitting in front of a shopping mall with ice cream in their hands, and people are haggling in the bazaar, just like they did thousands of years ago. Erbil has been inhabited continuously for more than six thousand years, and the culture of peaceful coexistence is very important here.

Towards Mosul

Mijidiland amusement park

We drive west, through smaller towns that often only consist of a few streets to the right and left of the thoroughfare. There are military-managed checkpoints around the big cities and on the highways. These are checked in much the same way as they used to be at the inner-European borders: anything that looks inconspicuous is waved through; if you are not sure, it is asked about and checked. This is where the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, control. They are part of the Iraqi strike force and have also been trained and equipped by the Turkish army since 2014.

The Kurdish flag flies at the checkpoints. The Peshmerga are regularly in a surprisingly good mood: “My friend! The theme park is over there! Are you sure you're heading in the right direction?“. After we confirm that we are on the right path, he frowns “OK, but be careful! And let me know when you come back! Then I can sleep more peacefully“. Before, I didn't know what to do with such conversations. But after years in the region, I have learned that it is serious. It's not supposed to be fun, it's not supposed to be fluff. It's polite to stop and let them know on the way back. A foreign journalist in the area stands out and people get worried. About me and about their reputation as a safe area. In Germany, when many people hear the word “Iraq,” they automatically think of bombs and war. Here in the region we know the difference between the dangerous “Iraq” and the safe “Kurdistan”. And the border runs between Erbil and Mosul.

The border"

The checkpoint to Mosul is structured like a normal border: on one side the Peshmerga checkpoint, on the other side... yes, who actually? Finding out is one of the reasons for this trip. Western journalists have not been able to enter the city for years. The NGOs in my area haven't been able to get in for months. Mosul was taken over by Hashd Al-Shabii. A type of heterogeneous Shiite militia, which consists of around 70.000 soldiers in five to ten groups with overlapping but different interests. It happens again and again that individual groups within the “Hashd” attack each other.

The Iraqi army wanted access to Mosul, but failed in the negotiations. One of the militias caused problems for me in Chanaqin in 2016 - only to let me drive through their area without any problems. It depends on the mood of the day and the person in question. Things can go very well or very badly. They are under the extended control of the Iranian government and work with Syrian and Lebanese Shiite groups. The Iranian commander of all units abroad, Qasem Soleimani, was killed by an American drone in Baghdad a few days before I went to Mosul.

But the issue is even more complicated because the Badr organization, founded by Iran, is also part of the Hashd. And they in turn manage parts of the Iraqi army and parts of the Iraqi police, having positioned hundreds of members in the ministries, up to the equivalent of state secretaries. Iraqi police officers, the Iraqi army or various Shiite militias could be at the checkpoint.

There is about a hundred meters of no-man's land between the two checkpoints. Small border traffic takes place here. Goods such as window frames, carpets and large boxes are transferred from one pickup to another. Taxi drivers on one side hand over guests to taxis on the other side. The whole thing is on a narrow, broken asphalt road with large potholes. Next to it is a muddy side strip that slopes deeper and deeper towards the end. An Iraqi flag flies at the checkpoint, which is only partially helpful. This also indicates that you are leaving Kurdistan. It does not necessarily show who is currently manning the checkpoint. A flag of the Shiite militias is visible next to it.

When it's my turn, the soldier in charge looks at me critically and asks for the necessary permits for the "Border crossing“ in his area and asks what I want on the other side. His manager and his manager come. They explain to me: “Mosul is safe. We'll take care of that. But the traffic is chaotic. I think it's better if we drive you. Then you can take photos in peace“. In such situations it is always difficult to weigh up what lies behind the statement. Are you really offering yourself as a tour guide? Or is there something else behind it? And why didn’t the (journalistic) colleagues come in? So my companion and I change the vehicle. The bulletproof vests are commented on with a pitying laugh: “You don't need them, but feel free to take them with you“. I should leave the car keys in the car. From a Western perspective this is irritating, but here we do this even in some car parks. This allows someone else to move the car if it gets in the way. Nothing has ever been stolen from me.

A dystopian still life

I had no specific goal in Mosul. I wanted to experience life on the streets, see the condition of the city and the bridges, just get a feel for what's going on here. The last time I was in 2014 was just in a suburb here and there.

We drive past collapsed houses, mountains of rubble, bomb craters and cars twisted by explosions. Within an hour it's like you've landed on another planet. A woman with a child walks past and stares at me. Men in the taxi wave awkwardly, the traffic police stare after me for a long time. You can't deal with me any more than I can deal with the whole situation. But I have to concentrate on the impressions and think about what I actually want here. In one place there is a large area full of rubble that has been cleared up a bit. We stop and look at another reinforced concrete mountain. “That was the mayor's office,” explains a local. His voice is neither sad nor happy. It's simply information - everyday life for him.

The older people who live here still know the time under Saddam, then under the US occupation, then under the new Iraqi government, briefly under IS and now under the Hashd. The city was always being built up and destroyed again, there were always fights, people you knew always died - everyday life. Freedom as we know it never existed for these people. They have come to terms with it in their own way. Small shops are open again and people live in the ruins. Not many, but there is movement on the street.

Reconstruction is out of the question. The Iraqi government would be responsible, but no longer has control over the area. The Hashd needs the city to connect the areas they control and wants relative security in the city but is not rebuilding anything. Some people have started building something themselves. They get material via the small border crossing or look for it in the mountains of rubble.

They are polite but reserved. Talking to a stranger can cause trouble if it's the wrong stranger. Their culture actually forbids being rude. So they smile politely and move on. About fifty meters away a group of children is standing and watching us. What's probably most interesting to them is what's happening today. In the distance you can hear a small airplane engine - a drone. Mostly they just observe. Rarely does a rocket fly from anywhere. Everyone looks up briefly. “America“ shout the children and point to the sky.

I wonder what the children's lives will be like in five, ten, twenty years. Will they stand in front of these mountains of rubble and see it as an opportunity to chart their own path in life, to build the country together and to live together peacefully? Or are they resigned because they never left their city, the world has forgotten them and no one even feels responsible to send them new windows? When you look at this city, which symbolizes large parts of Iraq, you inevitably think: What else is supposed to happen here? What is the exit strategy for the current situation? Who is responsible? And why do we in Germany find it completely normal that the world here, a four-hour flight from Munich, is so broken?

Baghdadi's mosque

"This is a mosque belonging to Baghdadi [the long-time leader of ISIS]. His security detail sat opposite.says the companion and points to a closed street that has a mosque on one side and residential buildings on the other. Rumor has it that the house is mined to prevent looting. But the information situation is rather thin. An older man who works across the street shakes his head. “No mines! Just rumors! Everything safe!and gives me the thumbs up. We can pass the closed street and go into the building that is in danger of collapsing. There was an air strike here four years ago, and in some areas the stairs are only hanging on the metal reinforcements.

There are no more doors and windows. There is rubble and dirt in what I think is the entrance. Behind it there is a couch lying across, facing the entrance. When you sit there, you can see the passage to the street. The couch is reasonably clean and looks used. Normally this building is not accessible and the guards sit there, I am told.

The higher you climb, the more broken the stairs become. You can only climb onto the collapsed roof. Part of the roof hangs down to the upper floor, making the path easier. Not very confidence-inspiring, but it works. From the roof you can see the destroyed mosque. In the other direction, into a backyard where three bent and rusted car wrecks lie. These were supposed to be traveling bombs for suicide bombers. I look into hundreds or thousands of dark windows throughout the area. Probably the only western person far and wide. I remember that my bulletproof vest is still downstairs in the car. But I wanted to attract as little attention as possible - if that's even possible here. Looking into the destroyed courtyard is like looking at a dystopian still life. In the building itself there are still packaged, self-printed and burned DVDs of Hollywood films, some VHS cassettes and a whole room full of sewing machines. There are mannequins in front of it. There was probably previously a tailor's shop in the rooms. 

A teddy bear sits by a window. The teddy bear in the destroyed house reminds me of the image of a doll sitting alone at the window in Chernobyl. The question that inevitably comes to mind is what happened to the children. Killed in an airstrike? Killed by ISIS? Killed during the liberation of Mosul? Or were you lucky? Does it still have a family? Things you shouldn't ask yourself if you don't want to know the answer. 

The rest of the city is somehow moving, but not alive. At least there are no longer dead people lying around everywhere. There is electricity. Food is ready. But above all there is suffering.

Back before it gets dark

My companion suggests that we go back before it gets dark. Then it can “more difficult“ will be – whatever that means in detail. He takes me back to the no man's land between the checkpoints, where I change vehicles. It's somewhere else, but it's still there. The Hashd people say goodbye with a handshake and wish me a safe journey.

Thirty minutes later I pass the Peshmerga checkpoint where I was supposed to report back. The soldiers come and ask: “What does it look like there?” Are people coming back? Is there enough food?”. They worry about those who live on the other side.

An hour later I look through the photos - over Nutella and banana pencake in a cafe in Erbil. In two days I'm going back to Berlin. Back to a completely different world that is so close and yet so far.