Khammam al-Ali is sits astride an important traffic artery along which the Iraqi army is slowly moving toward Mosul from the south. It includes the biblical river of Tigris, a once excellent highway, and a railroad line. There used to be a famous university on the city’s outskirts, but it was mercilessly bombed into ashes in 2014, when ISIS rapidly advanced across Iraqi provinces. “Into ashes” is no metaphor, not even walls remain of the university, only piles of yellow stones. One of the worst tragedies of this war unfolded on the very boundary of this cathedral of knowledge.
We smell its stench from several hundred meters away. Military jeeps keep their distance but nobody is removing their respirators. The locals say that here, on the edge of the university campus, there was planned construction before the war, so tall earthen, p-shaped embankments were built. When ISIS came, this became an improvised trash dump. It’s still here, with ordinary trash mixed with human remains. The corpses were hurriedly removed using bulldozers, so that it’s not even clear right now what is trash and what is human remains. The bones sometimes help with identification–they have been bleached by the sun. The garbage-strewn zone may well be mined, according to the military–this is no myth but the reality of this war. ISIS likes “surprises” and spares no-one.
One of the locals nevertheless agreed to talk to us, we don’t see his face only how his shoulders are shaking:
–They were all killed when the operation to take Mosul began. Many of my friends are here and my brother-in-law, perhaps others. I still have family in Mosul, I don’t want to show my face because I’m afraid for them. The Islamists are using civilians as human shields, you probably heard about that. I have no contact with them, anyone with a phone is a spy, as far as ISIS is concerned, a single phone call could cost them their lives.
The university’s ruins smoothly give way to the ruins of the city, there are burned out Humvees in the streets alongside old, Soviet-made armored vehicles left over from Saddam Hussein’s hordes. There is a huge crater in the midst of this tortured metal. Whenever the Americans hit their own, they call it “friendly fire.”
The city is without electricity, the main city market exudes a horrific stench–the first bombing took everyone by surprise so everyone ran, abandoning meat and vegetables. All of that is now rotting away under October sun, covered by millions of flies. A man carrying a boy tells us about their liberation:
–When the offensive began, we were locked in our houses, I don’t know the details. They used us as a human shield, about 100-150 people were locked up like that until the militants left. There were casualties among the civilians, 4 of them were killed, several others were wounded, aircraft bombs and shells struck cars and homes.
On the way here we passed through several towns that were wiped off the face of the earth. Along destroyed market stalls, streets without houses, concrete sumps with rebar pointing at the sky. Khammam al-Ali is hardly different. But here medieval barbarism encountered 21st century barbarism. And their consequences are equally terrifying for ordinary Iraqi civilians.