Journalist’s Notebook: Into the Battle of Mosul, Armed With a Camera

When I met Major Sajjad al-Hour, he and his men were preparing a large fish dinner.

Masgouf, as it’s called in Iraq, is a whole carp, grilled until black, covered with lemons and doused in spices. The carp had been pulled hours earlier from the Tigris River. But on the outskirts of Mosul, approaching the river can mean risking your life to incoming sniper fire. So how did the major fish out these carp?

“We throw grenades in the river and then pick them with a net,” said Sajjad, with smirk.

This technique isn’t out of the ordinary for many Iraqis; it’s just part of life. War has become a near constant since the 1980s. Many of the soldiers there have lived in a state of war since the day they were born.

When I set out to cover the battle in Mosul, I wanted to focus on these soldiers who were fighting ISIS and show how the violence has changed them over the years.

Sajjad was the perfect subject. Young, brave, experienced and fearless. At 33 he has eight kids and has been shot five times. I would end up spending three weeks embedded with Sajjad and his men.

Sajjad was the son of a soldier. His father had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. And though his father attempted to dissuade his sons from joining the military, Sajjad didn’t listen. The day after graduating high school, Sajjad was already signed up for military academy. From 2004 to 2010, he trained and fought beside American soldiers.

“I certainly miss them,” he would say in many of our interviews, remembering his U.S. counterparts fondly. (We spoke through a translator; him in Arabic, me in English.)

Perhaps this is why we got along so well. After eating our fish dinner (delicious, by the way), he spoke at length about how much he missed the camaraderie of Americans. I am no soldier, but I’d spent a few months covering Iraq in 2016, when I made a VR film covering the fight for Falluja.Sajjad had watched and appreciated it. I explained that I wanted to find someone to film who could exemplify what it meant to be a soldier in Iraq. He said, “I know just the man.”

And so my embed with Sajjad’s unit of the Emergency Response Division began.

I spent nights living with Sajjad and the 150 soldiers under his command inside the city of Mosul. The soldiers would move into an abandoned house near the front line, use generators to supply power, and bunk on the floors wherever they could find space. Every few days, they would pack up, move to a new house and begin again.

Ben C. Solomon in Mosul

What they did, my team and I did.

Each night, the four of us — a translator, a driver, a security adviser and me — would unroll our sleeping bags and find a spot on the floor to rest. While many journalists would make day trips from the Kurdish city of Erbil, spending multiple days with the soldiers helped us gain the their trust.

They began to share jokes with us, show us pictures of their girlfriends and wives back home and invite us to share every meal.

The days were intense. In February and March, the soldiers made their first push into the western part of the city. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, was well prepared. Consumer drones would fly overhead and drop grenades. Suicide car bombers, well equipped with armor and homemade explosives, would come at full speed toward the unit multiple times a day. Improvised explosive devices hidden in the dirt and rubble were around every corner. Each day we spent out with the unit was incredibly dangerous. We would ride along inside the armored Humvees of Sajjad’s convoy, filming when we could.

The soldiers’ work was grueling, but freeing besieged civilians made it worthwhile. People who had been under Islamic State rule lived in great fear. Many had hidden in the basements of their homes for weeks to hide from bombing strikes and ISIS attacks.

Sajjad took great pleasure at being the liberator. On one day, a family named their newborn son “Sajjad” and made tea for the unit as the soldiers rested in their living room.

The unit’s work is not without controversy. Last month, an Iraqi journalist on a similar assignment to mine released footage and photos of a different division within the same battalion as Sajjad’s, showing soldiers torturing and executing civilians in Mosul to extract confessions of working with the Islamic State.

In my time with the soldiers, I saw no such treatment. Sajjad assured me he had no relation to this battalion, which worked and fought on the east side of the city; he and his men fought on the western side. It’s hard to tell, however. Would I have seen a different story if I were not a foreigner? Would they have been more open with me?

This week, the Iraqi forces started the most important and complicated part of the fight: retaking the old city.

This battle will surely be brutal and harsh.

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