Standing at his window as bullets flashed by, Khaled Ahmed pointed at the filthy alley below and spoke about the last time he saw Islamic State fighters, just over a week ago.
“There were four of them, no more than 12 years old,” he said, pulling back a tattered curtain in his central Mosul flat. “The rifles on their back scraped the ground when they walked. They were all scared.”
On the roof above, police had cut slits in a wall through which they stared and shot at the enemy holed up across the road in the ruins of the governor’s office, then ducked for cover as the insurgents’ guns blazed back at them.
Khaled’s home has been a focal point of the war against the terror group for the past three years, first as an intelligence hub from where he phoned in details about its activities, and now as a frontline in a fight that is inching ever closer to where it all began for Isis – the Grand Nuri Mosque, where the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014.
Khaled’s family is one of only two left in the neighbourhood, a ransacked and battered corner of a city that is rapidly being stripped of its residents. Those civilians who remained were on the move this week: the city’s old and infirm, and parents carrying their children along muddy roads, shrouded in smoke and haze to staging points on its outskirts, to be received as Iraq’s newest refugees.
Those who made it out were the lucky ones. More than 2,000 civilians have been seriously injured in the battle, which began on 17 October with a push on the east side of the Tigris river and has now switched to the western bank, a densely packed maze of suburbs in which an embedded and ruthless enemy is giving no quarter.
At least another 300,000 people are thought to still be trapped in neighbourhoods that Iraqi forces or coalition jets are yet to reach. Their predicament has been highlighted in the aftermath of a series of coalition airstrikes that demolished an area of Mosul Jdeideh neighbourhood last week, killing at least 150 people and leading to claims that neither US commanders, nor the Iraqi officers who called in the strikes, have been paying sufficient regard to civilians caught up in the war.
“What can we do?” asked Mudhar Salam, a federal police trooper taking shelter in a doorway just near the frontline. “[Isis] use them as shields. Remember our people have been killed by Isis in our homes and mosques for the last 10 years.”
Mudhar, along with the other officers in his unit, all Shia Muslims, insisted on showing the site where the demolished Nabih Sheet shrine once stood, just around the corner. “This is what they do to religion,” said Lieutenant Adil al-Saade, standing next to Shia flags staked in the ground where the shrine once stood. “We will make this city respectable again.”
All along the road leading to Khaled’s house, federal police were stationed amid ruins. Long before war came to town, Mosul was renowned for sculptured wooden doorways. Many have survived, but most interiors have been scorched and upturned. A deck of cards was scattered amid cigarette boxes and shell casings along the road.
The flotsam of battle guided a path towards Khaled’s house, where his wife prepared food for troops that came and went to the rooftop. “Those boys that they turned into terrorists used to come here along with their masters,” he said. “None of them know I had been an informant for Iraqi forces since the first time Isis came here.” In return for their help, the family get electricity, cigarettes, and protection, all valuable commodities with an enemy so near.
Overhead, artillery guns thumped and shells whistled towards Isis positions. Iraqi helicopters fired machine guns into distant buildings. Occasionally, smoke billowed like a thunderhead above Mosul – the result of one of several car bombs.
This week there were no coalition airstrikes inside the city, as the US conducted a formal review into the deaths in Mosul Jdeideh. Iraqi forces changed the subject whenever it was raised, talking instead about the help they are providing to refugees who make it out.
In southern Mosul, where the airport once stood, women and children were milling along a boulevard of eucalyptus trees which guide the way into Iraq’s second city. Plumes of black smoke towered in the distance and yet more stragglers walked slowly out of the apocalypse.
As Iraqi forces attempt to retake Mosul from Isis, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad joins their elite Golden Division on the frontline, speaking with civilians, soldiers and Isis suspects
Nearby, the Tigris snaked its way through farmlands as it had for millennia, splitting a city that had always been two halves, in character as well as geography. Since war arrived, it has become a tale of two cities. While the west withers, eastern Mosul was last week steadily returning to life. Marketplaces bustled with produce and people and more civilians were returning and leaving.
The rise in returnees has led some NGOs, such as Handicap International UK, to warn of the danger of unexploded bombs for those returning.
Maud Bellon, the organisation’s coordinator, said: “Nearly 70,000 [people] have already returned home. The streets and abandoned houses not destroyed in the fighting are littered with explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices. It is still very dangerous.”
At a bus station south of the city, large trucks disgorged the latest to flee. Men and boys were taken to one area, women to another. Some men arrived dazed and caked in concrete dust after days of frantic and futile digging to try to rescue family members and neighbours.
“They’re all gone,” said Mustafa Khalil, who had spent four days trying to find his two sons and mother. His eyes stared blankly, and he shrugged: “What can I do? No one came to help us and the blocks were too big.”
In the tent set up to receive the men, the mood was the same. Stark acceptance of unfathomable loss. “This will all be over soon,” Khalil added. “And then we will cry.”