Based in Istanbul, Ivor Prickett has been covering the conflict in Iraq and its ripple effects across the region for the past two years. Some of the most brutal fighting to regain parts of Iraq from Islamic State (IS) took place during the battle for Mosul, Iraq's second city, which had been captured by IS in June 2014. Ivor was embedded Iraqi forces during parts of its massive push to remove IS from Mosul starting in October 2016.
Days after the Iraqi government declared victory over IS in Mosul, the fighting was far from over. In Mosul's Old City, IS's last redoubt, the idea that anyone could be left alive after weeks of brutal combat seemed incomprehensible. Yet pockets of fanatical fighters continued to resists and, horribly and amazingly, civilians continued to emerge from the battle zones. At a forward base, special forces brought in a man holding a boy no older than two. The barefoot man, wearing a bloodied vest and dirty shorts, didn't know who the child was. The soldiers immediately suspected him of using the boy as a human shield to emerge from the rubble and took him aside. The commander of the unit assumed that the boy's parents had been killed and decided that one of his men who couldn't have children himself would adopt him. After being washed the child was taken to meet his new parents. This was one of the rare moments of beauty and compassion in an otherwise unrelenting 9 months campaign that had killed thousands and left the city in ruins.
In the residential district of Mosul Jidideh, the advance of the Army in March 2017 precipitated an exodus of the last civilians. A column of desperate families set out at day break, carrying their young children and propping up their ageing relatives. They moved along the shattered streets, their slow, silent march accompanied by the sounds of battle nearby; a cacophony of gunfire, the dull thud of mortar rounds, the roar of IS car bombs and US air strikes.
As people passed across a square where fighting had raged the night before many didn't even notice the crumpled body of an IS fighter lying in the rubble, his body almost camouflaged among the stone and twisted metal.
The accounts of loss were grim. Five year old Mohammed Hamed and his sister Amina, 4, had been hastily buried in a shallow grave in the courtyard of a school after having succumbed to wounds sustained during an airstrike on their home which was targeting IS positions nearby. Their parents had been unable to get medical help in the chaos.
IS's seemingly endless supply of suicide car bombs took a fearsome toll in the battle. Moving into Shuhada district with the army, there was immense destruction with the acrid smell of explosives hanging over the destroyed streets. Suddenly we heard another blast nearby. A car bomb had failed to detonate after being abandoned by its driver. The explosion was from a coalition airstrike called in neutralise it.
The final weeks of the battle saw some of the most destructive fighting with the last remaining IS fighters not given the option of surrendering. Whole streets in the Old
City were pulverised to dust. Months later, when I revisited the area with rescue workers tasked with digging out the bodies of civilians, the smell of death was everywhere and it was almost impossible to move without stepping on human remains. In July I was with the Army when they discovered a courtyard with around 10 bodies strewn across the floor. Two men had their hands tied behind their backs. Whether they were IS captives who died in a shootout or IS prisoners who had been summarily executed was impossible to say.
Mosul was retaken from IS at a huge cost. Thousands of civilians were killed in Mosul and for those who lost relatives in the fighting it will be hard to know whom to blame. Of all the tragic stories I heard and saw, one sticks with me for its futility. Khalid Mohammed Qassim (42) and his 16 year old son went to the flower mill where the father had worked for 15 years after the fighting had stopped. They were both killed when their car struck a roadside bomb. Having survived years of brutal IS rule and the battle to drive the militants out, it seemed so unfair and pointless that they would die after the guns fell silent.