'The only ones who lost'

The crew gently digs around the dark, matted hair protruding from the rubble. As they pull away bits of debris, the s...

Posted: Jan 22, 2018 8:15 PM
Updated: Jan 22, 2018 8:15 PM

The crew gently digs around the dark, matted hair protruding from the rubble. As they pull away bits of debris, the stench of rotting flesh grows more pungent.

"It's a girl," one of the recovery workers says, "and she has a stuffed animal with her."

Their painstaking work gives way to the mummified body of a small child, about ten years old, curled up in the fetal position.

Her corpse is little more than leathered skin and mangled bones. Her face is frozen in fear -- eyes bulging, mouth wide open.

The crew believes she was killed sometime during the battle for Mosul's Old City, which ended nearly six months ago. No one knows who she is or where her parents are.

The grey toy rabbit with blue spectacles and a pink sweater beside her is the only way any living family members would be able to identify her.

"Maybe someone will recognize (the toy) and then we can identify her," Hazem Mohammad, the lead rescue worker, says.

A photograph of the girl and her bunny will be added to a growing government database of the unclaimed dead.

She is one of an estimated 10,000 people killed in the nine-month long battle to recapture Iraq's second largest city from ISIS, according to Mosul's municipality chief Abdul Sattar al-Habbo.

That figure isn't officially acknowledged by Iraqi forces or the United States military, which claims coalition airstrikes killed around 300 people in Mosul.

But for the survivors, it is not a matter of numbers -- it's a matter of acknowledging what the residents of Mosul lost, and the price they paid.

A graveyard under the rubble

On the campaign trail, US President Donald Trump vowed to "bomb the hell out of ISIS." Once in office, he fulfilled that promise by delegating greater authority and autonomy to his generals, allowing commanders on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere to pursue a more aggressive strategy in their long-running war on terrorism.

It was a decision welcomed and applauded by Iraqi security forces, who suffered massive casualties in the first months of battle.

"We were able to get more airstrikes under the Trump administration than under former President Obama," Major General Najim al-Jubouri, commander of the Mosul operation said. Before Trump took office, "it took longer (to call in an airstrike); now the time it takes is shorter than before and we have good results."

The wasteland of the Old City is evidence of how this more aggressive strategy played out on the ground.

Few buildings are still standing; most of them were pancaked by airstrikes. The ones that remained upright are little more than pockmarked shells.

Piles of twisted metal and burnt-out husks of cars still line roads that were cleared by bulldozers for Iraqi troops to engage in street-to-street battles here last summer.

And beneath the mountains of rubble lies a graveyard of lives lost in the ferocious fight. Many innocent people were pinned down in their homes or used as human shields by ISIS, caught in the middle and killed in the crossfire.

The ones who lost

Mustafa Nader says he couldn't wait any longer for the government to send diggers. He's come with his relatives and a single shovel to find the body of their great uncle.

The 23-year-old pulls away at the stacks of jagged stone, his search guided by only one thing: the scent of decay.

"It's here, it's here! The smell is strong," one of the young men shouts. Another grabs the shovel and they begin the macabre work of uncovering the skeletal remains.

"What I remember most is he loved a Christian woman," Nader says of his great uncle. "Her family wouldn't allow them to get married. The years passed and he became an old man, but he remained single. Until his last breath he was speaking of his love for her."

"He lived alone and died alone," Nader adds. "What's the point of our lives?"

Standing in the ruins of his historic home near the Tigris River in the Old City, Saed Jerjis cannot see how the so-called victory over ISIS belongs to him.

"ISIS won by hurting us. And America won by hurting us. Neither of them was defeated here. We are the only ones who lost," he says.

In the final days of the battle, ISIS militants forced the Jerjis family out of their home and used it as a fighting position. Days later it was leveled in a coalition airstrike.

"I criticize the Americans because their bombing was so ferocious. To kill one ISIS man they would fire a rocket worth millions and knock down ten homes," Jerjis says. "They (coalition) used savage force."

"Like nothing on Earth"

A months-long investigation by the Associated Press found that between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed in Mosul -- a third of them from coalition airstrikes.

The Pentagon has disputed the total number of deaths reported by AP. Department of Defense spokesman Eric Pahon told CNN: "While we do not discuss details of our internal processes and procedures of assessing civilian casualties, we can tell you that unlike ISIS, the Coalition works extensively to reduce the risk to civilians on the ground and we leverage our technology to ensure the strikes are as precise as possible."

A CNN review of data publicly released by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS found the US acknowledges approximately 300 "credible" allegations of civilian casualties due to coalition strikes near Mosul.

But Abdul Sattar al-Habbo, the head of the municipality in Mosul, told CNN the AP estimate appears consistent with the information he has received from various authorities.

Mosul's government has received some 9,000 requests from residents regarding missing persons. Most of them were last seen in the Old City and are believed to be buried under the ruins.

And in the months after ISIS was defeated, between August and December 2017, the local health department received about 3,000 bodies, according to Laith Hababa, the health director of Ninevah province, where Mosul is located.

The Iraqi government has established a committee to investigate the loss of life, but residents say they have little faith in a fair or accurate process.

"Everyone is denying it," Habbo says of the death toll. "But the scale of the destruction is like nothing on Earth. The Old City is 100 percent destroyed."

Habbo estimates there are still thousands buried under the rubble. Nearly six months after the battle ended, there are also still bodies festering out in the open. Survivors scale the apocalyptic landscape in a daze, attempting to recover what is left of their loved ones.

Mosul resident Mahmoud Shuker remembers hastily burying some 100 people in the courtyard of his local mosque as bombs and rockets rained down on his neighborhood.

"They are mass graves. There are four to five people in each one," Shuker says as he points out the unmarked mounds of dirt under which entire families were laid to rest.

"Three boys, brothers, are there," he says, gesturing towards one mound. "Their father comes once a week with chocolate, biscuits, soda, all their favorite things, and just sits."

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