A bright morning. We’re gathered outside the Rixos hotel in the town of Duhok. ‘Candle in the Wind’ was playing in the lifts as I checked in last night, and ‘Hey Jude’ as I rode down to breakfast. Shielded from the road by blast barriers, we’re being briefed by James Willcox, whose company, Untamed Borders, specialises in taking people to places most other people don’t want to go to. Standing beside him is Peter, ex-army, accompanying us as security and medical escort. No one has suggested that he’s here because I’m so old, but I can’t help sensing that he’s keeping an eye on me. I, in turn, am determined to pretend I’m twenty-eight, not seventy-eight.
James is concerned about our safety in Iraq, as was the hotel’s armed security officer who ran a detector under our car before lowering the protective steel plates on the approach road as we arrived last night. James cautions us against loose talk. Never tell anyone we meet which hotel we’re staying at or what we’re here for. If we want to go out at night ‘don’t go without one of us’. My heart sinks a little at this. For me, solitary exploration is one of the greatest pleasures of travel. There will be many checkpoints along the way, we are warned. ‘Don’t get stressed,’ says James, before adding, ‘Don’t start taking photos, don’t get on the walkie-talkies and have some fun, anything like that.’
It’s all quite sobering – a reminder that we will be entering areas whose names evoke the worst of human behaviour. The country’s second city, Mosul, for example, has been at the centre of violent change for most of this century, enduring civil war, al-Qaeda occupation and, most recently, the brutally severe regime of ISIS/Daesh. They first made their presence felt in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led 2003 invasion and went on to declare themselves a worldwide caliphate in 2014, seizing large areas of the country in the process. They ran Mosul for three years, before being ejected by government forces with huge loss of civilian lives.
Mosul is where we’re going today.
Like many of the vehicles here our lead car has the bulky swollen undercarriage that shows it’s been armour-plated. The one I’m in hasn’t. They call it a ‘softskin’. Nobody seems worried.
Up until now we’ve been in an area run by the KRG, the Kurdish Regional Government. Now we’re moving into territory under the authority of the federal government. This, I’m led to believe, is not a good thing.
By half-past nine we are at our third and most heavily guarded checkpoint. Our papers are examined by a soldier in full body armour, night-vision goggles, Kevlar helmet and with an AK-4 7 across his chest. He’s unimpressed by our credentials and beckons us to pull over and wait in a side channel. Salar gets out and collects our passports for the third time today. I like Salar. Not just because he’s lived in Sheffield, but for his temperament, his ability to take all this on without screaming and shouting. Short, compact, with broad, slightly hunched shoulders, he holds himself defensively, his eyes lowered but always darting about, full of wary humour.
The key to these endless security checks is endless patience. No point raising your voice or pointing out that we have a letter of authority signed by the president. The men in charge of the checkpoints have to feel that they rule the world, and that involves taking their time.
The roadside is strewn with rubbish: plastic bags blow backwards and forwards through the fields, like a flock of lost birds. The Tigris runs in parallel with us, but for a while is transformed from a river to a two-mile lake, the Mosul dam, the biggest in Iraq.
On the outskirts of Mosul sheep are grazing on the verges, picking their way around burnt-out cars. On the opposite carriageway a half-mile-long line of cars waits for petrol.
The first sign of the scale of the damage done to this ancient city is the wrecked shell of a huge hospital. It’s shocking and unmissable. Because of its size and prominent position by one of the Tigris bridges, it was used as a base by Islamic State snipers, and was the last building to fall in the battle to free the city. Medical staff and patients were used as human shields and many lost their lives as the Iraqi army, backed by US- and UK-led coalition firepower, flushed out the insurgents. All this barely five years ago.
Around the skeleton of the hospital, debris has been bulldozed into long piles. Sparrows perch on stacks of twisted barbed wire as if they were on a country hedge.
We’re taken to the old city where, by the banks of the Tigris, whole neighbourhoods were destroyed in hand-to-hand fighting. What remains amongst the ruins are heaps of rubble mixed in with clothes, comics, furniture, school books. Some of the narrow streets have been cleared, others remain impassable, blocked by collapsed concrete walls leaning at odd angles. A young girl comes up, curious to see what we’re doing here. A boy joins her, eyeing me quizzically. He and his friend have catapults. He lets me have a go, grinning and laughing as I inexpertly send a stone skimming across the road.
I walk a little further on, away from the film crew, and come across two children sitting at the doorstep of what is left of a house. The boy is seven or eight, the girl older. Eleven or twelve, I guess. They sit silently together, he with a shy smile, she impassively, showing no emotion. I ask if I can take their picture. The girl nods, solemnly. It’s then, as I frame the two of them, sitting amongst the debris of a roofless house, the wall behind them studded with bullet holes, that I find myself unable to contain my own emotion. Tears well up and I have to turn away.
Not that tears are what they want here. Or not from us, anyway. They want to know who we are and where we’re from. The solemn girl and the smiling boy are soon joined by others and I feel like a Pied Piper in reverse as my stroll turns into a guided tour. They lead me to a house, one of the few still intact, and beckon me inside. There, in a tall room, shuttered against the sun, I find a circle of older women, sitting on the floor, preparing lunch. Women are so shielded from the public gaze in Iraq that I feel perhaps I shouldn’t be here. I bring my right hand up to my heart, bow and make to retreat, but they urge me to join them, smiling broadly, clearly rather excited by my interest. Children cluster around, and there is much banter that I can’t quite interpret.
My lack of understanding seems to entertain more than frustrate them. I want to ask them about the barbarity they must have witnessed here and the friends and family they must have lost in these streets, but it seems quite inappropriate. Their mood is upbeat – celebratory, even. They enjoy being taken notice of. They want me to sit and share food with them and I feel bad that our time is so short. Outside, I have some photos taken with the children. I’m not naive enough to think that all is well in the ruins of Mosul, but the quite spontaneous welcome we’ve received suggests that there is a resilience here that is stronger than anger.
Our fixer Salar is visibly angry though. People died in awful ways here. Families took shelter in the basements of their houses only to find that when the house above them collapsed they were trapped beneath concrete and rubble. Many starved to death that way. He surveys the still-shattered neighbourhood and complains that UNESCO funds are going to the repair of the mosques and not to the homes of the poorest people, who suffered so much.
I see more of Mosul in the company of a young man called Harith. Early twenties, dressed casually but carefully in navy Oxford shirt, jeans and black leather jacket, he has a neatly trimmed beard and, as with most young Iraqi men, his hair is dark and lustrous and well cut.
His father’s a doctor, his mother also works in the health sector. He talks eloquently of the three years of ISIS occupation. He had to change his Western clothes for a robe, he couldn’t listen to music, and though he managed to hold on to his phone, he could have been arrested and tortured had he been discovered using it. His education came to a standstill, something he particularly resented. ‘Mosul was a well-educated city.’ Worst of all was the random brutality. A physically handicapped friend of his was taken away, imprisoned and killed for no reason. In the centre of town homosexuals were tossed from the roofs of buildings whilst a crowd was forced to watch. He aged twenty years in those three years, he tells me.
All this from a young man whose favourite English author is Jane Austen.
Now some things are better, and there is a determination to rebuild. But it’s proceeding very slowly. The university library has just reopened, but of the five bridges across the river only two are usable. Harith wants to get out, to go, ideally, to the UK to study English. It’s sad to hear this in a way, because Harith is just the sort of bright, educated young man Iraq needs if it’s to rebuild.
We leave the wrecked old city, and he takes me to a riverside cafe called Mosul Forest Gardens. I can’t see a forest and the gardens stand dry around fountains that no longer fount, but the covered terraces leading down to the river are full of family groups eating and drinking. Some of them are out on the Tigris in sedate double-decker boats. For the more intrepid there is the shrieking thrill of being flung around in power boats.
Harith introduces me to his friend Adel. ‘Like the singer but without the “e”,’ says Adel, smiling broadly. Both are very much into rock music and English novels. They express deep dislike for their politicians. Neither of them smokes or drinks alcohol and neither has a girlfriend. Young men, they tell me, cannot be seen alone with a girl unless they are engaged.
I drink a huge glass of fresh orange juice and we keep each other company as the sun begins to go down.
On the way out of Mosul, we see work going on to rebuild the famous, much revered al-Nouri mosque into which UNESCO, as Salar pointed out, is sinking a huge amount of money. Their aim is to create a public complex worthy of the intellectual heritage of this historic city. ‘We want to raise the spirits of the people of Mosul,’ I was told by the chief of works. As we head out of this brutalised city I can’t help wondering if there aren’t better ways to raise the spirits of the people, like clearing the rubble their families died in.
We drive past the shell of another vast mosque complex, built by Saddam Hussein and never finished.