When she woke again she was still holding her sister’s hand. It was dark and her body hurt all over. It took her a moment to realize that this was not the same nightmare she had been having since the fighting to get the extremist group known as the Islamic State out of Mosul – her city – had begun.
Where she was lying was a narrow grave-shaped hole inside the damaged basement of her house. The small cold hand she was holding was all that she could see or feel of her sister, Tabaraq. The rest of the girl appeared to be under a marble column.
Areej is a young woman from Mosul who had just celebrated her birthday in February 2017 when the Iraqi military, supported by international coalition forces, had started the fight to push the Islamic State, or IS group out of Mosul.
Areej still can’t remember the time she spent in the dark, screaming with fear and calling out for her mother, clutching Tabaraq’s hand and terrified she had been caught somewhere between life and death. At one stage she fell unconscious again and when she woke, she was shouting again, in the hope that her mother might hear her.
Areej doesn’t understand how she survived the tons of concrete and iron that killed the rest of her family. She can remember sitting in the basement where she and her family would always go when bombing started. Her mother and her aunt were there and her cousins; Areej had been hugging Tabaraq because she was scared. In the other corner of the basement was her father, disabled by an older accident, next to her older brother and her uncle.
A storm of smoke hit the basement and everything disappeared. “And that is all I can remember,” Areej says. “Why did they leave me alone?” She started crying.
That is the same question she kept repeating to doctors and nurses in the field hospital to which she was taken by federal police, who were able to dig her out of the rubble of her home on June 11, 2017. She was only slightly injured but had spent three days trapped under the house and her rescuers had heard her shouting.
For two weeks doctors had to give Areej tranquilizers to stop her panic attacks. They also had to stop her from trying to leave the hospital and going to her house to search for her family members, all of whom were known to have died in the rocket attack that collapsed the basement.
When her remaining relatives did eventually take her back to see the ruins of her home in the old town on the banks of the Tigris, they did let her search under the stones. Areej really did think maybe somebody could still be alive.
“With every explosion, we were shaking and we held each other’s hands,” Areej recalls. “My mother was always reciting the Koran and praying to God to save us. My sister was by my side all the time because she was so scared. After each explosion, she would ask me: Is it over now? Can I open my eyes?”
Areej’s house was just a few blocks away from the Shareen Market, in the centre of the old city of Mosul
It was there that a police lieutenant, Saad, and several volunteers were trying to recover the remains of a family of ten who had also been buried under their house after a rocket attack. In the middle of the ruins and personal effects tossed aside by the bombs, Saad found a small heart shaped notebook. It had once been pink.
The cover was torn, it once featured a butterfly. For some reason Saad put the notebook in his pocket and went on with his work, passing on human remains to his colleagues from forensics, and tossing other household items on a pile that would eventually be taken away.
By that day in October 2017, Saad had already helped collect the corpses and remains of 168 people and that was three months before fighting ended in this part of the city.
“Being around the dead for a while makes you forget to be frightened of death,” says Saad, who became a lieutenant four years ago. “I saw my colleagues die in the streets, fighting in battles, and many people killed by bombing.”
In some cases, Saad says, he arrived just as a soldier or a civilian was dying, saying their last words, breathing their last breath. But somehow the little notebook seemed like one of the saddest things he had seen.
There were only 16 pages remaining in the book and Sama wrote on them in three colours. On Tuesday the 4th of March, 2014, she wrote in big letters: It is my birthday. She drew a happy face in a circle next to the words.
On the remaining pages, there were no dates, just words in the dialect of the people of Mosul. Often the pages were decorated with flowers and hearts.
I got a wonderful gift on my 12th birthday. My mother and I made kibbeh today. My grandmother hates the cat that lives here but my father says it will have babies next year.
The little girl also wrote about her fears: I hear bombs and we cannot leave the basement.
On the banks of the Tigris river, four Islamic State snipers stormed the home of Mohammed Tayeb al-Lela on January 2017, using his roof as a base from which to shoot at Iraqi forces advancing towards them.
Before the snipers were even able to do much damage, the two-storey, 600 square meter house was bombed from above.
The people of Mosul know much sadness but many mourned the dead professor as if he was their own relative anyway. He was one of the best scientists in the city and a former dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Mosul, and was killed alongside his wife, a doctor, Fatima Habbal, and their youngest daughter.
The professor’s eldest son, Ahmad, lives in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan with his family and he says that whenever his phone rings, he instinctively thinks it is his parents and he feels a childish joy, that he must quickly overcome.
He used to contact his family very cautiously on a mobile phone, even after the Islamic State banned their use.
Ahmad says he begged his father many times but his father always refused. “Nothing can force me to leave my house, the books I wrote and the books I collected since my youth, to the savages,” his father always said.
He had deep roots in Mosul and neither the Islamic State group or the Iraqi military were able to shift him, Ahmad says.
Ahmad explains bitterly that as yet he has been unable to get a death certificate for his parents and sister. He needs a corpse first. “I don’t know where I can find them the corpses because even with his years of engineering experience, he was unable to build a basement that was able to protect him and his family. It was also unable to protect their corpses, Ahmad concludes, sighing heavily.