Manal Idrees looks out the car window in shock at the streets of her neighborhood in the oldest part of Mosul, reduced to chunks of concrete and tangled metal.
She fled when ISIS moved in three years ago. Although she has seen images of the destruction after Iraqi forces retook Mosul two weeks ago, experiencing it in person is staggering.
“It’s ruined — all ruined,” she says as we drive by streets where not a single building is left standing. “Mosul is gone. Iraq is gone.”
And then she starts to sob for the son she lost: “All the beautiful young men are gone.”
Idrees has come back on a unimaginably painful mission — to try to find the body of her 26-year-old son, Wissam. He was beheaded by ISIS 2 1/2 months ago.
Idrees says he was killed because his uncles were police officers. A neighbor recovered his body and buried him in the garden, she says, in a tone that indicates that is a normal course of events.
Idrees is a widow. Her husband, a taxi driver, was shot dead seven years ago on the highway between Baghdad and Mosul. Idrees left Mosul along with Wissam and a younger son after ISIS entered the city in 2014, and they settled in a camp for displaced people.
Wissam went back to west Mosul in May, when the battle for that part of the city began. He wanted to try to rescue his grandparents. That is when he was killed.
“Tell everyone to come and see what has happened,” Idrees says as we make our way through alleys blocked by chunks of concrete. “This used to be a place where people would come and visit because it was so beautiful.”
We reach a garden where four bodies were hurriedly buried under concrete blocks. None of them are Idrees’ son. A week later, she is still searching for his grave.
‘The buildings I knew are all gone’
The old section of Mosul, west of the Tigris River, with its winding alleys lined with houses dating back centuries, was considered an essential part of Iraqi heritage. This city built along the ancient trade routes was a microcosm of Iraq — a mosaic of ancient religious and ethnic minorities. Residents still refer to some of its neighborhoods as “the Jewish district,” even a half-century after Iraqi Jews were forced to emigrate.
That part of the city is now almost unrecognizable. It will take years, perhaps decades, to rebuild. Once-vibrant neighborhoods filled with shops, restaurants, mosques, schools and homes have turned monochromatic: charred buildings with black scorch marks next to the dull gray of twisted metal. Almost everything is covered in the white dust of collapsed concrete buildings.
The few civilians look shellshocked. For the most part, security forces aren’t letting people back in until they clear the neighborhoods of explosives. Those who are here, like Idrees, are searching for the bodies of loved ones.
A week after the city’s liberation, the noise of fighter jets, gunfire and the shouts of security forces are the only sounds that break the eerie silence.
The main hospital in western Mosul — the scene of some of the fiercest fighting — is destroyed. Parts of the university are demolished. All of the bridges spanning the Tigris need repair. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 homes in the Old City were badly damaged or destroyed in the last three weeks of fighting.
“I wouldn’t be able to find my way home from here. The buildings I knew are all gone,” says a civil defense worker, among several winding their way through rubble to retrieve bodies — women and children, mostly — buried beneath collapsed buildings.
Near one house, an unexploded grenade lies in trash next to a wall. Streets are littered with unexploded mortars. There is no electricity or running water in the west side of the city.
In the rubble of the 12th century Great Mosque of al-Nuri — where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared three years ago that an Islamic state was rising again — a pile of pages from a ripped Quran is stacked near the broken pulpit. A white-painted metal chandelier dangles crookedly from the ceiling, its teardrop-shaped pendants scattered among the broken tiles.
All that remains of the mosque are the base and a stub of a bent minaret known as al-Hadba, the “hunchback” — Mosul’s most famous monument. ISIS blew it up when Iraqi security forces closed in last month and it became clear the group was losing its grip on the city.
‘Is this your liberation?’
In the past two weeks, civil defense workers have recovered more than 1,000 bodies of civilians in western Mosul. They are still finding dozens every day. In basements, extended families of 30 or 40 people would huddle together to try to survive the airstrikes and mortar attacks. When the buildings collapsed, many people were trapped under the rubble and died there.
“Is this your liberation?” asks a woman who wants to be identified as Um Firas, the mother of Firas. Her face is contorted in grief as she sobs while a worker unzips a body bag. She identifies her daughter and a 1 1/2-year-old grandson – his tiny arm visible under the body of his mother.
Um Firas has lost four children and two grandchildren.
“Was my grandson carrying a weapon?” she asks. “Was he a threat to the Iraqis or the Americans?”
Nearby, workers carefully remove the gold jewelry from the decomposed corpse of another woman to give to relatives who have just identified her.
Most of the bodies are covered in concrete dust from the buildings that collapsed around them. In the parking lot of the civil defense base, there are more than a dozen people waiting for workers to unzip the black and bright-blue body bags.
The women sob; the men, mostly, are stoic. Two teenagers kneel on the concrete together to peer into the top of one of the body bags to identify their parents. There are dozens of bodies recovered every day.
The military plan to retake Mosul, agreed to between Iraq and the U.S., involved encircling ISIS, leaving the fighters no escape route once they were surrounded in the Old City. But it also left no escape for civilians trapped between ISIS gunmen and Iraqi and U.S. airstrikes.
Although the U.S. curtailed airstrikes in the crowded Old City after more than 100 civilians were killed in a March strike on a neighborhood called Jadida, Iraqi airstrikes continued. Mosul residents say dozens of civilians were killed along with each ISIS fighter.
“When it came to the Old City, the Americans pulled their hands out, but then Iraqi planes started hitting us,” said Ghassan Luheibi.
He had come to see whether defense workers could retrieve the body of his nephew and his nephew’s children.
“Before,” said Yasser, a university student who wanted only his first name used, “if there was an ISIS fighter on a motorcycle, they would fire one rocket and no one else would be hurt. Why didn’t they use this technology in the Old City?”
A bittersweet victory
The Iraqi military does not release casualty figures, but in a speech last week, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the numbers of security forces killed or injured exceeded the number of civilian casualties.
Estimates for the total number of civilians killed during the three-month battle for Mosul range as high as 38,000, the number put forth by some Kurdish leaders, but most Iraqi officials believe the likely figure is 3,000 to 4,000 civilian casualties. More than 1,400 bodies have been recovered so far by civil defense forces.
On the east side of the river, where ISIS put up less resistance than expected and Iraqi forces were able to establish control in January, shops and restaurants have reopened and life is returning. But across the river in the heavily damaged west, the mood is much more somber.
One Iraqi army officer said that in his battalion of 800 men, 400 had been killed or wounded. Special forces who have been leading the fight against ISIS for three years are estimated to have lost 40 percent of their troops.
Even after liberation was declared July 9, counterterrorism forces were still fighting ISIS in a neighborhood near the river.
“The fighters are in tunnels underneath buildings and they have civilians around them — that’s why it’s taking a little bit longer,” says Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi at a temporary special forces base in western Mosul.
He stops to greet local politicians who have come to congratulate him. A soldier passes around a tray of sweets.
But with so many losses, it’s a bittersweet victory.
One of the older noncommissioned officers embraces Saadi and bursts into tears.
“He is crying tears of joy,” Saadi makes sure to tell me, “and not tears of sadness.”