The other war: living with corpses and stray dogs in the city of Mosul

The war was over in Mosul, but other battles were still unfolding. The returnees to the old Iraqi city are still dealing with poverty and disease, and with unidentified bodies buried under the rubble of demolished and mined buildings. Their recovery has become a daily occurrence, no longer newsworthy.
2021-05-18

Mizar Kemal

Writer and journalist from Iraq


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Right side, The old city, Mosul. © Muhammad Salem. Candid Foundation

Warning: This investigation includes graphic images some readers may find disturbing.

On July 9, 2017, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in the city of Mosul, 465 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. Nine months of fierce battles since October 2016 ended when Abadi hoisted the Iraqi flag in the city and announced the defeat of the terrorist organisation that had controlled the city for three years, its stronghold in Iraq. From Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the city the capital of the ISIS “caliphate”.

The war was over in Mosul, but other battles were still unfolding. The returnees to the old Iraqi city are still dealing with poverty and disease, and with unidentified bodies buried under the rubble of demolished and mined buildings. Their recovery has become a daily occurrence, no longer newsworthy.

Entering the old city

We enter the city through its west side, the Right Bank of the Tigris, and head to the al-Shahwan neighbourhood. A destroyed house with a crumbling roof and walls catches our attention; we suspect there is a story behind it. We are right. Local residents greet us and tell us what happened.

Muhammed, 33, witnessed the moment the house was hit with two missiles during the battle to recapture the city.

“The owner of this house was a senior ISIS leader in Mosul. During the organisation’s control of the city, the house turned into a Diwan of Zakat [a religious taxation department]. During the military operations for the liberation of Mosul, several ISIS families arrived and were based in that house. Almost a week later, the house was bombed with all the women and children in it,” he tells us.

“The house contained oil barrels and an underground basement. It was bombed around 3am. We heard the screaming of the children and women who were set on fire. They kept screaming for two hours, until 5am. Then there was silence.”

Muhammed points at the house. “The injured were taken by ISIS militants, but the dead still lie under the rubble. Dozens of bodies remain buried under the wreckage and still have not been recovered.”

The destroyed house that ISIS turned into a Diwan of Zakat. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

Khaled Ezzat, 58, also saw the bombing and tells us about a woman who survived. As we talk, neighbourhood children throw rubbish bags into the burned-out property.

“She told us that all their money was inside the house and that there were 64 people living there, 14 of whom were evacuated. Some were wounded, and others were dead. The remaining 50 people are still under the rubble.”

Neighbourhood residents, without exception, speak of the heavy psychological toll on their mental and physical health due to the unrecovered bodies under the rubble. The house has become health hazard, a breeding ground for stray dogs and a den for snakes, scorpions and insects.

The stench of death

Al-Shahwan witnessed devastating battles between the Iraqi ground forces, supported by air strikes, and ISIS, which fought fiercely to keep the city under its control. It is among the most devastated areas in Mosul. According to the mayor, Zuhair al-Araji, 80% of the Old City (the western part of Mosul) was wrecked and 15 of the city’s 54 residential neighbourhoods were razed to the ground, including al-Shahwan. Half of the buildings in 23 neighbourhoods were completely demolished, and 16 neighbourhoods were only “slightly” damaged.

Right side, The old city, Mosul. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

Umm Muhammad, 64, is one of the few residents who returned after the battle to liberate Mosul. When we arrive at her house, she is sitting on her doorstep, as she often does. Holding a long white rosary in her hands, she counts the losses of Mosul’s inhabitants, reminiscing about the old times and remembering her neighbours. Some have been killed, others were displaced and have never come back.

“We were living in paradise. The earth of my neighbourhood means the world to me,” Umm Muhammad says as she looks at the devastation around her. Her house is one of the few that has been restored.

“When the battles were over, we returned home, only to find it destroyed. But the benevolent people donated money to me to have it restored,” she says as she moves the beads between her fingers. “But the stench is killing us. The stench of death. And the insects, scorpions and snakes have proliferated because of the mounds of corpses here.”

She takes us on a tour through the rubble of the neighbourhood. We pass through alleys, and on collapsing walls find the words “There is a family here” written, with an arrow pointing the way.

Umm Muhammad talks about the difficulty of life amid the ruins and corpses in the city of Mosul. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

In another house, we find human remains covered with blankets, pieces of cloth, clothes and shoes. We also find explosive belts.

It is dangerous to enter these houses; mines and unexploded bombs are scattered around, as are explosive belts on the bodies of fighters who died before having the chance to blow themselves up.

The booby-trapped city

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) estimates that thousands of tons of explosives are still scattered throughout Mosul, saying in April 2019 that it may take over 10 years to completely clear the city. According to Paul Hyslop, Director of Programmes at UNMAS, before the onset of the military operation to liberate Mosul, ISIS fighters had two full years to plant explosives and bombs.

A corpse from Al-Shahwan neighborhood on the right side of Mosul. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

We wander further into the devastation with Umm Muhammad. Human thigh or arm bones protrude from the rubble. “We sleep with corpses,” she says, but is adamant that she will not abandon her house, after a bitter displacement and war experience. “This is the land of my father and grandfather. Where else would I go? We only ask the government to compensate us for the destruction of our homes and the killing of our children.”

Her eyes flicker. “See that hill over there? Well, it’s not exactly a hill. These are houses that were razed to the ground, with everyone inside them killed and buried under the wreckage. Here in the al-Biah area, we are dying of the stench of corpses. The walls of houses could collapse any moment on children. A few days back, a child fell into a basement of a destroyed house.”

Umm Muhammad wanders in the Shahwan neighborhood in the city of Mosul and narrates the details of the destruction. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

Recovering the bodies

When the battle to liberate Mosul came to an end, the death toll was 3,176, of whom 1,429 were civilians, according to Iraqi War Media Department figures. However, the lists of identified and unidentified bodies still being recovered from the Old City indicate that there were far more than 3,000 victims.

According to the Associated Press “The price Mosul’s residents paid in blood to see their city freed was 9,000 to 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. The number killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State group marauders has not been acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate. 

We meet Brigadier General Hussam Khalil, Director of Civil Defence in Nineveh. He shows us the number of recovered bodies in Mosul that are in the possession of the Civil Defence Directorate.

“The Civil Defence has recovered 2,600 bodies that were identified of innocent people who perished in the battle to retake Mosul. Some 750 corpses belonged to women, and 850 to children who could not exit the city. There are also some 2,200 unidentified bodies belonging to ISIS militants. This brings the total of recovered bodies in the city of Mosul to 4,800,” he tells us.

An interview with the Director of Civil Defense in Nineveh Governorate about the exhumation of corpses from the city of Mosul. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

These numbers are higher than those of the War Media Department and of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), a government institution affiliated with the Iraqi parliament. In December 2018, IHCHR announced that the total number of bodies recovered from the city of Mosul was 4,720, including both identified and unidentified bodies.

Khalil says the Civil Defence has completed about 98% of the work of recovering the bodies scattered all over the city, explaining that this depends mostly on calls and reports from citizens or service departments in charge of removing rubble and carrying out service projects. 

Other figures

In the wake of the liberation of Mosul, the Body Recovery Committee was formed, headed by Duraid Hazem, an engineer. According to Hazem, from the end of the battle through the end of 2019, the recovered corpses numbered 5,524, of which 2,872 were unidentified and 2,652 identified. He confirms to us that work to retrieve bodies is still ongoing.

“As long as there is rubble and destroyed houses in the city of Mosul, this means that more bodies lie beneath them. The area between the Shaareen market and the Fifth Bridge in the Old City was the last battlefield between the Iraqi forces and ISIS. The fighting was fierce, assisted by air strikes. It is one of the most destroyed areas in the city and the bodies remain under the rubble,” he explains.

He adds that the state does not possess the means to remove the huge quantities of rubble and debris in the city. “We as a committee worked in cooperation with the Mosul municipality, the Civil Defence and the Forensic Medicine Department. But because of the lack of adequate equipment, we could not get to the bodies deeply buried under the mounds of rubble.”

A corpse from the Qlaiaat neighborhood on the right side of Mosul. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

Qlaiaat, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, was home to the Assyrians after the fall of their empire in 612 BC at the hands of the Medes and Chaldeans. This archaeological area witnessed the last battle between the Iraqi army and police and ISIS, known among citizens as the “final battle”. The remaining ISIS fighters and their families, as well as other residents who could not escape, were trapped and besieged. ISIS used people as human shields.

Qlaiaat has been reduced to rubble by intensive Iraqi army shelling and air strikes by the international coalition forces supporting Iraq in its war on ISIS, not to mention the mines and bombs planted by ISIS in homes and streets. The Civil Defence recovered some 500 bodies, mostly those of women and children, from the archeological area alone. The suspension of the search for bodies turned Qlaiaat into a mass grave for hundreds or perhaps thousands of people. They remain buried there, with no way for the Civil Defence teams or the municipality to recover them, due to the colossal devastation.

Bags containing body parts in Qlaiaat neighborhood, right side, Mosul. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

Are there 27,000 bodies under the Mosul rubble?

There is great secrecy about the number of victims of the battle of Mosul, from the federal government and its institutions in Baghdad, and from the local government and its departments in the Nineveh Governorate. We have been unable to obtain accurate figures for the numbers of dead, wounded or missing. No databases are kept in any of the government departments concerned with this issue.

The government’s War Media Department, however, is very open about the number of ISIS deaths. According to Iraqi security forces figures, 30,000 ISIS militants were killed in the nine-month battle.

If we do a simple mathematical calculation based on the official Iraqi figures, whether the Baghdad central government or the Nineveh Governorate, we have the following:

According to Hazem’s figures, there are 5,524 recovered bodies, including 2,872 bodies belonging to ISIS. If we deduct the 2,872 from the total of 30,000 dead ISIS militants killed by the Iraqi forces (according to their media department), we are left with 27,128 bodies still under the rubble in the city of Mosul.

Civil defense teams recover the bodies from the city of Mosul. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

On July 19, 2017, the Independent newspaper obtained an intelligence report from a top Kurdish official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The report includes over 40,000 undeclared civilian casualties in the battle of Mosul, far more than the official figures declared by the Iraqi government. It also contains an exclusive interview with Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari, formerly the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs and then Minister of Finance, who confirms the figures.

“Kurdish intelligence believes that over 40,000 civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them, especially by the federal police, air strikes and ISIS itself,” Zebari, who comes from Mosul, says in the report. “The unrelenting artillery bombardment by units of the Iraqi federal police, in practice a heavily armed military unit, caused immense destruction and loss of life in west Mosul.”

Bodies litter Mosul’s streets

In 2017, Sorour al-Husseini was leading a team of six people whose mission was to search for corpses and pull them out of the rubble. This volunteer team was made up of civilian activists who took it upon themselves and risked their lives to rid the city of its veil of death.

“In November 2017, we visited the Old City of Mosul and were shocked to see mounds of bodies littering the city’s streets. We immediately went to the municipality and the Ministry of Health and the Civil Defence to obtain the necessary official permits to start pulling out bodies. It took two months for approval. We began work in January 2018,” Husseini tells us.

She explains that her team was driven by fear for the city and its citizens. “When we saw thousands of bodies in the streets and under the rubble, we thought that an inevitable epidemic would plague the area, and that those who had not died because of ISIS would perish from a serious disease. Also, people had to eventually return to their homes sooner or later. They couldn’t do this with bodies scattered everywhere.”

Sorour Al-Husseini while recovering the bodies from the city of Mosul. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

Husseini tells us that she and her team recovered over a thousand bodies. She shows us video footage of the team pulling out corpses in the Old City. Many of the retrieved bodies were missing parts – a hand, a leg, a head. She explains that this made it difficult for them to fill in the forms describing the bodies.

“Our work was limited to pulling out corpses, not burying them. We worked at the beginning with the municipality of Mosul, and then we cooperated with the municipal and forensic departments. We collected bodies from under the rubble, basements, streets and any place we could reach the corpses. We did not have any equipment. We used to place the bodies in special bags and seal them. We took the bags out of the heavily destroyed areas to streets with less destruction where vehicles could drive. The municipal department would collect the bodies and take care of the burial procedures.”

Surour Al-Husseini's team recover the bodies from the city of Mosul. © Qassem Al-Zaidi/Candid Foundation

She also confirms that heaps of corpses remain. “A month ago we visited the west side of the city. Human bones and body parts littered the streets. I don’t have an exact figure of the remaining bodies, but I know for sure that they are in great quantities. We do not have the necessary tools or means to be able to detect the exact numbers.”

Yet another battle: 40,000 stray dogs

The hardships of the people of Mosul are compounded by yet another battle. The city has some 40,000 stray dogs, according to Dr Uday Shihab al-Abadi, Director of the Veterinary Hospital in Mosul. They roam the streets in the east and west sides of the city, spreading fear and disease.

Abadi says a thousand dog bites are reported each month. The first campaign against stray dogs was launched at the end of 2019, two years after the city was retaken, during which time the dogs had been feeding on dead bodies. He explains that the local authorities poison dogs through food, which he sees as a peaceful way of dealing with the issue without affecting the community.

Dr Uday Shihab al-Abadi, Director of the Veterinary Hospital in Mosul. © Muhammad Salem/Candid Foundation

In accordance with the Iraqi Law of Combating Stray Dogs no. 48 of 1986, stray dogs on public roads, outside homes in the cities, and in rural areas can be killed by sniping or any other method. The law adds that the Minister of Agriculture may issue instructions to this effect according to the propositions of the competent departments. The second article of the law stipulates that the competent authorities shall collect the perished animals to be torched in remote areas designated for this purpose.

Stray dogs roam public parks, streets, ruined buildings and mounds of rubble. They attack passers-by and enter homes, spreading disease and causing injuries that are sometimes fatal. Mosul’s dogs constitute yet another epidemic in the war-battered, corpse-filled city.

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This investigation was carried out with the support of the Candid Foundation. 

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Read in arabic at Assafir al Arabi: https://cutt.ly/5bM2f0e

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