It was 4:00 in the morning when the phone in our hotel room rang. It was our friend from the reception telling us the drive was in the lobby waiting for us. We hurried up, got ready and rushed to the reception to drink our chai, which gave us the feeling to be ready for the day. Then we met the driver. First of all he would bring us to a little village in the mountains of Iraq Kurdistan close to the border to the Arabian side of Iraq. There we would meet our fixer along a bumpy road. These two Iraqi men would get us through several check points today, bring us illegally over a border and to one of the saddest and craziest places we have been to so far.
This day we went to Mosul!
Why this is so exciting? Well, Mosul is not a place a traveler just goes to while travelling Iraq. Getting to Mosul is difficult and dangerous and nothing you just do because you feel like it.
When travelling Iraq, you will travel the Kurdish region in Iraq, which is the northern territory with borders to Iran, Turkey and Syria. This part is called Iraq Kurdistan and when coming from Europe, the USA and some other countries you can receive a Visa-on-arrival at the international Airport of Erbil or the land borders. This visa is valid for a maximum stay of 30 days in the Kurdish region and just in the Kurdish region. You cannot cross over into the Arabic part of Iraq with it. Getting an Iraqi visa is a real pain in the ass and close to impossible to get beside some exceptions.
How to get to Mosul
When going to Mosul you have to cross over into the Arabic part of Iraq. This means first you have to go through several check points to leave the Kurdish region and go through checkpoints to enter the other part of Iraq. Leaving Kurdistan wasn’t that hard, enter Iraq was the real challenge.
As we didn’t have a visa our fixer had to bring us over the border illegally. This resulted in a long ride through fields and over bumpy roads from one check point to the next. The first check point rejected us right away, the second rejected us after some discussion and the third one, thanks to our fixer who is a real champ, let us in after a long discussion. During the whole procedure we had handed out our passports to our fixer, which made us feel insecure, and also needed to take off our glasses which made us blind. Needless to say, we sat very nervously in the back of the car.
Finally, we got the go from one of the border officers but with a clear warning not to enter Mosul. We were allowed to drive to a church close to the border but not to enter Mosul. Our fixer had told the guy we were just interested in that church. Nevertheless, he was quite confident and decided he would get us into Mosul anyway.
Already in the border area you can see destroyed houses and streets, the result of the war is everywhere. After driving 20 more minutes we were in the suburbs of Mosul and arrived at the Tigris. The Tigris is the river which divides Mosul into the “old town” and the “new town”. Both parts where once connected by 4 bridges but 3 of them got destroyed in the fight against ISIS over Mosul in 2016. The bridges got destroyed to cut of the suppling lines of ISIS into the city.
Mosul was, after Raqqa in Syria, one of the most important cities for ISIS in their controlled areas in Syria and Iraq. Raqqa was the capital, but Mosul was the place where the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called out the ISIS caliphate in the Mosque al-Nuri in 2014 and named himself the caliph of it.
Before that, Mosul was the second largest city of Iraq after Baghdad and well established and developed.
Mosul became one of the central leading points of ISIS and the citizen had to obey their leadership. Living under ISIS meant following their rules, their interpretation of the Islam. ISIS was holding strict up to the Islamic law, the sharia, and just accepted who was a believer according to their own definition. Going into the definition of ISIS and what they believed in, would go too far here. I already read a number of books about it and about the Islam in general, so this is nothing you can make short and explain in a few sentences.
When ISIS got defeated, Mosul got deliberated. This deliberation caused a terrible fight in which the whole old town of Mosul got destroyed and ten thousands of people died. Their bodies are still buried under the ruins.
When passing the SWAT-Team controlling the last standing bridge and driving over into the old part of Mosul you can see nothing but destruction. Literally everything is destroyed. When leaving the car and walking the streets I could feel the immense terror and trauma that has happened here. Despite all that the people of Mosul are starting to rebuild the city with their own hands and also opening some shops in the ruins again these days.
Being in Mosul
We started to wander around the ruins with our fixer guiding and explaining us everything. We met people from Mosul rebuilding and sitting in their destroyed homes. It was a chain of moments I can hardly describe. The people were friendly and open to show us around. They told us what has happened in some of the buildings and for what some of them where used. One man followed us for a some time, guided us into some of the destroyed buildings and climbing through the ruins.
At one point he stopped and made me, the one with the camera, to come closer to him. I hesitated a bit but took a few steps towards him, when suddenly he grasped at something on the ground next to his feet. One second later he held the bones of a human leg in his hands.
I needed a second to get myself together again. I knew before I went to Mosul what I was getting myself into. Still I would lie if not telling that being there is a total different story. After a few seconds I recovered from the shock and our fixer and the man explained us that there are still bodies buried under all the ruins. Numbers unknown. Being in the ruins of Mosul you will have a somehow sweet smell in your nose, this is the smell of the dead bodies. Today you can`t identify any more if they were ISIS fighters or victims. Sometimes you find the rest of clothes or a weapon with the body which is the only way to figure out if it was a ISIS fighter or not.
We entered a lot of buildings and also a destroyed church. Everywhere are still the remains of the people who lived there lying around. Teddy bears, clocks, furniture, dishes, cloth, weapons…you name it.
This makes this place and its destiny even more real. This makes even more real that human beings, people like you and me, had lived there. These people endured so much and a lot of
died there as well. Not that after the incident with the foot and the constant smell in my nose it wasn’t real enough already.
What it is about in the end
In all its sadness and destruction, you can still see Mosul’s old glory and beauty in the ruins of the destroyed building in the “old town”.
Wandering through all of this, experiencing all of this, gave me a mix of feelings. In the end everything that happens in places like that, in wars and fights, is about the people in the end. I am talking about the normal people who have nothing to do with a terrorist group or the government but get their live destroyed by them for whatever reason. The people who live in those places and lead a live like all of us until war and terror destroys their lives. The victims are normal people who got wounded and killed without being involved in the decisions or the fights around them. This is what really happens in places like that. It is not about governments or terror groups fighting each other’s because that’s their choice. It is about normal people’s lives.
In Mosul it is as time stopped but still you can see everywhere people cleaning, rebuilding and opening stores. Life has to go on and it goes on in Mosul. What else should they do? Sitting around in the ruins will not change what happened to them. They have to start the rebuilding by themselves . There is hardly any help to support them and who else would care about it anyway?! No one of who has destroyed their lives will help build it up again. In the end it is up to them.
For more pictures, check out my side here.