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Danger Amid Mosul's Ruins
By Sandra Petersmann

The chirping of the birds seems out of place in this unreal, man-made landscape of disemboweled homes and deep craters. Emerging from the rubble are rusted, crushed cars -- turned into molten balls of scrap by the all-dissolving heat generated during the bombing raids of the final battle, which raged here a year ago.

The light breeze that blows through the Old Town in Mosul on this hot summer day only intensifies the stench of decay, which is hard to bear. It's still unclear just how many people were killed here in the fight for liberation from "Islamic State" (IS) rule. Current estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000 victims. To this day, bodies are still being recovered from the rubble.

Hissing bullets

Zahra Abdul Qader, a 25-year-old mother of four, endured the IS occupation in Old Mosul almost until the last day of the final battle. She recalls constant hunger, relentless US bombing raids, house-to-house fighting and the hissing bullets of snipers piercing the walls.

It wasn't until the Iraqi army conquered Zahra's street that she and her family dared to venture across the Tigris River to seek safety in the already liberated eastern part of the city. Here, many areas look like as if the war had never happened. Now though, all their funds are used up, and their financial hardship has forced them to return to the apocalyptic ruins in the bombed out western part. The family is left with two ramshackle rooms from which to eke out a living.

Zahra's husband, Ahmed, works as a vegetable seller, and he sets out with a handcart every morning. Against the odds, some stalls and improvised markets are once again selling goods in Old Mosul. Meanwhile, Zahra stays home and doesn't let her four young children out of her sight. "I follow them everywhere; I never let them out on the street alone. I'm very worried about them," she says.

Only a few days ago, members of the civil defense force discovered an unexploded mortar shell in the neighboring house. "I hope that everything will be the same again as before, that our houses and mosques will be rebuilt," says Zahra. "I just wish for a normal life in peace and quiet."

Industrial explosives production

The Old Town on the western banks of the Tigris was the last IS stronghold in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. And it was from here that, in June 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his self-styled caliphate. Back then, Mosul had an estimated population of two million people.

Today, no alley in the old walled city is unscathed. In front of a bombed-out house, next to a pile of stinking blankets and rusty tin cans, about a dozen mobile phone chargers and a car battery lie in the rubble. A few steps further on are small, dust-clogged walkie-talkies, one discarded on a vaulted windowsill. A little further to the left, a crumbled miniature version of the Quran. Then a tattered protective vest, barely visible on the surface of what once used to be tarmac.

It's quite possible that the remains of such vests contain explosives and metal ball bearings. And if such a vest were to explode, those ball bearings would be shot through the air, becoming deadly projectiles spraying the vicinity.

Mark Warburton is an operations manager with Optima, a private firm responsible for clearing unexploded bombs, mortars, rockets and booby traps on behalf of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). "We have found everything here that can be commercially made, from hand grenades through to (American) 500-pound air-delivered bombs to everything that IS can improvise: improvised grenades, improvised mortars, improvised rockets, everything," he says.

The British ex-soldier and explosives expert has gained a lot of experience in war and crisis areas around the world. But what he finds in Mosul's Old Town surprises him.

"The improvised explosive devices are very well-built, like in other conflict regions, but here they were produced on a phenomenal industrial scale," Warburton says. "It wasn't just a few people building them here and there. This has been a real industry, to build them to this scale and this amount."

Suicide belts

Between the beginning of December 2017 and the end of May 2018, Warburton and his men cleared about 33,500 explosive hazards in 790 operations in Mosul's Old Town, including 610 explosive belts.

"We had to remove about 300 of these belts from the bodies of fighters before we could defuse them," Warburton says. "This is not a pleasant job, but the bodies need to be removed and we need to make it as safe as possible for any follow-up teams."

Walking through the old walled city, Warburton and one of his teams pass 10 white body bags. After a few more steps, they find another suicide belt which appears to have recently been placed atop another pile of rubble.

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