On the day that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the pro-government forces would begin to move into western Mosul, in their attempts to push the extremist group known as the Islamic State out of the city, Abu Maad* took shelter in the basement of his house.
Iraqi forces have been fighting the Islamic State, or IS, group there since October. Late last year the battle moved from one side of Mosul to the other. The Tigris River passes through Mosul and locals usually refer to the cityscape as being on the left or right bank, or left or right side, of the river, with the left bank being Mosul’s north-eastern side and the right being the city’s south-west.
They kept shouting out in pain – until Iraqi forces came with vehicles and were able to take them to Qayyarah Hospital.
On the left bank, population density is lower because many of the buildings here are new and modern. On the right bank, there is a high-density population and houses built close to one another in an old city with narrow alleyways.
Abu Maad lives in the Mansour neighbourhood on the right bank, or western side, of Mosul.
“We are so lucky to have a basement,” Abu Maad, 45, said. So he took around 50 members of his extended family into the cellar to live with him until the fighting was over.
The cellar was only 90 meters square in all and sometimes it felt like there was not enough oxygen for everyone, he told NIQASH. The people in western Mosul are almost completely isolated, with no power and no communications, as a result of the blockade of the road leading to Syria by pro-government forces in November. The road between Syria and Iraq had meant that the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group could keep bringing supplies into the northern Iraqi city.
“It was like being in a prison without a guard. Nobody could leave,” Abu Maad says.
On March 8, fighting neared the house. The cellar began to shake from nearby explosions and the families trapped inside could hear guns.
Fighters from the IS group had previously forced residents to make holes in their walls so that they could pass from house to house unseen by pro-government forces.
At sunset on March 8, an IS gunman entered the house and began to fire through the windows at Iraqi military. But he disappeared almost as quickly as he came, through other holes.
Abu Maad was told about what happened next by a neighbour. An Iraqi soldier in a nearby building had spotted the IS sniper in Abu Maad’s house. He radioed for support, saying that his forces were under fire from Abu Maad’s house and he gave the coordinates of the building. One of Abu Maad’s neighbours nearby overheard the soldier and told him to cancel the request as there were 51 or more civilians hiding in the basement of that house.
“The soldier tried to cancel the request but it was too late,” Abu Maad says. A rocket hit his home and the entire two-storey building was destroyed.
Shortly before the rocket hit, Abu Maad’s sister and his cousin had gone upstairs to fetch some supplies; his sister had her baby with her.
“The rocket hit the house and there were flames in the basement, fragments of building and dust; everyone hit the ground,” Abu Maad continues. “Afterwards it was pitch dark and the women and children started to cough, then shout. We began to check on the kids and we found that a couple had fractures and others had been burned.”
The families waited for some sort of assistance but none came. So Abu Maad says he decided to handle things himself and began to push the wreckage away from the cellar door.
“When I opened the door, I was shocked to see that there was no house anymore,” he recalls. “I began searching for my sister and my cousin and eventually I found them unconscious and bleeding. I ran out onto the street to ask the Iraqi soldiers for help. But they wouldn’t help. One of them told me to get back inside quickly – he was standing on the street, watching, the road with his gun out, because he said IS fighters were still close by.”
Eventually the trapped families were able to get out of the cellar and they made it to a neighbour’s house. “But nobody helped us because the situation was still not safe,” Abu Maad says.
The family had to watch helpless as the three injured family members died from the wounds they had sustained in the bombing. The four others, who had been burned or had broken bones, cried all night, Abu Maad adds.
“They kept shouting out in pain – until Iraqi forces came with vehicles and were able to take them to Qayyarah Hospital,” he says.
Abu Maad and his family have remained in Mansour, taking shelter at another house because the neighbourhood is now – comparatively – secure again. They have heard that conditions in the camps for the displaced are terrible so they want to try and remain here. But even while the family remains thankful that they survived, they have not yet returned to their home, the scene of that horrific night.
Abu Maad’s thoughts have already turned to how life can go on now that the family has lost its home. He remains angry at the fact that his house was unnecessarily bombed. And he is not the only one.
So many civilians in western Mosul – thousands have fled but thousands have stayed – remain in Mosul, trapped and desperate, caught between Iraq’s pro-government forces and desperate IS fighters.
*Names have been changed for privacy and security reasons.