I rolled out of bed as my alarm went off to get up for the day. I didn’t really know what the day had in store except that it would be an adventure. I facebook message the fixer to see how close they were to picking me up and she says they’ll be there soon. I look over and grab my helmet and kevlar vest off the ground. I tried it on the night before as one of the other journalists offered it to me for free, the only thing is it’s a little small on me.
The vehicle honks outside and I bring my camera bag with the kevlar and helmet to the outside where an armored police vehicle is waiting with 6 people in it. One of the journalists from the house I’m staying at comes with us as well so 8 in total. We meet the fixer and driver and get in the car. It’s pretty squished but we get everyone in. We drive away. Two of the journalists have cigarets and are smoking while the windows are shut and I try to keep my coughing to a minimum as I have a cold. I meet the other journalists in the car, two are from Italy for the newspaper, one is from Belgium who has worked with CNN and the other who came with me from the house is from Brazil and has worked with National Geographic. I’m known as the film director from LA.
We drive through multiple check points some manned by the KRG and others by ISOF. Each check point I wonder if we’ll make it through as we have to trust our fixer to have all the documentation and connections through the border. Our fixer is from Damascus, Syria who has done this multiple times and who is our translator as well. Our driver is an Ex Iraqi Special Forces Sergeant who knows each person when we’re going through the check points. The closer we come to Mosul the greater the destruction is. There is remnants of car bombs on the side of the road and the homes become rubble.
We get through the last check point and cross the Tigris River. This is the only way to get across for miles as the other 5 bridges have been bombed. We then drive to a US base, that on the outside looks like an Iraqi base. Our fixer gets out and talks to the guard on the outside. She gets back in and they open the gate. We drive in and it looks like a normal US military base from the movies. You can see US Air Force written on the sides of cargo containers. We then proceed to go into the house that is there and can smell food. The Bulgarian reporter sees a friend and jumps out and hugs him. I learned later that she had been embedded with his squad for 2 months in Mosul. The cook walks out of the house and says something to the fixer. She comes back to us and says they have food ready for us.
We thanked them for the food and went up to the roof to eat. From the roof we could see over the walls and see the outskirts of Mosul. Black smoke lined the horizon and reminded me of when Frodo and Sam first saw the smoke coming from Mordor (The Lord of The Rings). We hung out there for a little when I called my friend Adam who had come the day before with another fixer and who I was trying to meet up with. We got ahold of him and he said he was by the big sign right outside of the city so the 8 of us drove to him.
We came up to a setting of 100’s of refugees who were sitting on the ground who had just walked out of the city. We got out of the car and to our right was 5 cots for the injured. This was the front CCP (Casualty Collection Point). I saw my friend Adam and got out and met him. The first thing I remember him saying to me was, “We got shot at yesterday by ISIS snipers.” I remember thinking “what did I get myself into.” I see medics and soldiers around. Our fixer goes and speaks with one of the soldiers. Then almost immediately two Jeep Hummers fly down the road towards us. They slide to stopping right in front of us and ISOF military soldiers jump out. These guys act like The White Helmets in that they are the first responders to where a bomb had just hit and had civilians and military with them. I watch as they take the wounded out, some of them crying, badly burned, or shot. They bring them over to the cots. I put down my camera and Adam and I grab a stretcher and help bring a man in his 40s over to the cot where the medics are. One of the medics tell us to flip him over, so we gingerly flip him as he yells and screams as he’s been shot in the back. We heard later that ISIS had told the city that if you try to flee that they will shoot you and that is what has happened to this man as he tried to flee the city.
I remember being torn on if I was to film or to help as it didn’t feel right to film when these people were going through this. I had my camera up at one point and the guys yelled to stop filming as they didn’t want it getting out how many casualties they had. They told me I could film the civilians but not the military. It felt off to film at all. I then spoke with Max the medic, Adam had told him about me before coming and he knew I wanted to film him. I proceeded to interview him. He is an amazing guy who came from Norway to the war and to do 3 deployments to help the civilians and military at the closest medic station to the war. He went back to helping and administering aid. Every half hour or so there were new wounded to help, then they would be put into an ambulance and driven down the road to a hospital 30 min away or so.
We then walk up to where there are people sitting on the ground waiting to be put in the back of big trucks that would take them to refugee camps. They had all just fled from the city and you could tell they were tired, a truck pulled up with new supplies with water and some food and people got boxes to take with them. We walk a little closer to the city, the 8 of us the fixer, a soldier and 6 journalist. The soldier tells us to keep moving and to not stop in one place as there are snipers around even though we are out of range we still are in danger. We see people fleeing the city coming towards us some with luggage, some with nothing.
One woman is carrying her baby when she stops as she is so tired and her baby is crying. One of the journalist goes over and takes the baby from her to help her as the mom looks for her baby’s bottle in her bag. I start filming. You can hear the gun fire that is just a few blocks away from us, pop pop pop. As well as bombs going off as the baby is crying. Then slowly the war stops, the gun fire stops for a minute, the baby stops crying. It was a surreal moment to see the contrast of it all in seeing and hearing the war and the baby and the tension of it and then the calmness. The journalist gives the baby back to her mother and she goes to the collection point. Another man comes up to us and starts speaking. One of the journalists give him a cigarette and he thanks him and goes on his way. Another woman comes up to us and I ask if we could speak with her. Our fixer translate as we ask her questions of what she’s coming from. She’s walked for 2 hours to get out of the city.
An armored vehicle comes up to us and stops he doesn’t want me to film him so I put my camera down. We then walk back to the casualty collection point. The plan was to go further into the city but our driver informs us that our armored vehicle has broken down. I remember wondering if we were going to be stuck there. Then a military soldier offers his truck for us to go in and another as well. We get our armor from the back of the police vehicle and jump in the bed of the truck. I’m with the two french reporters.
Adam stays at the CCP as he is with his fixer. I say bye and we get in the back of the truck open to any shots that might hit us. We drive down with armored hummers behind us and in front. We go past some sheep on the road. I remember being concerned because the intel that we got that day was that ISIS had been strapping bombs to sheep and making them go into people who were fleeing. We drive into the city and take a series of turns. Our driver forgot the way so we drove up to a military check point where they waved us back we could hear the gun fire was really close. We took the wrong turn 2 times but eventually the driver asked a soldier at an outpost and he told us the way.
Our car drives up to a series of buildings and we get out. I see 30 US soldiers there and one comes up to us and says we can film everything accept anything to the left. The reason being there is artillery and they didn’t want it getting out where they were set up. I ask him where he’s from and turns out he’s from Texas. I see the soldiers have computers out and they have a drone with them to give them intel. They are helping the Iraqi soldiers with finding out where ISIS is in the city.
We then go into a house where there are the top generals of the Iraqi army. One of the French journalists asks to interview him and he says yes. I started filming and she went back and forth with the translator. She then offered for me to ask him questions and so I did as well. After the generals went to the map and they showed where the line of the war was. It was their war room where they spoke strategy. They then brought food and we ate on the floor as it was custom too.
Our fixer then asked us if we wanted to walk around the city and we said yes. We had an ISOF guide and we walked around speaking with the people in the surrounding area. We walked behind the soldier as he knew the way and there was possibility of mines being around in the area. We walked up to a truck that had been shot maybe 100 times. Every car we saw was shot up. I asked about it and they said it was an ISIS car, then I realized there was a dead man right outside the car. The soldier told us he was an ISIS soldier who had been shot 5 days ago. This part of the city was ISIS territory then. At this point we are only 4 blocks from the fight. We walk around some more as we hear helicopters going over head and still bombs and gun fight.
We walked back to where the generals were and it was almost sunset so we got in the back of the truck and drove back to the Casualty Collection Point. Adam had been there and we spoke about what had happened to us both. Our ISOF Special Forces Driver tells us that he fixed the armored vehicle so we’re good to go. We all get in and Adam goes with his fixer and we drive back the way we came.
It was a somber day, the most destruction and death I had seen in my life but in the midst there were all these helpers. The thing I was reminded of was something Mr. Roger’s mother first said which was: When ever something bad and terrible happens in the world look for the helpers. And I did. Just like Jesus did with sacrificing himself for others there were so many people I saw who sacrificed their time and resources to help another. Max the Medic who was there to administer medical aid, the journalist who saw a mom that was struggling and offered to take the baby as she looked for her bottle, the french journalist who offered a cigarette to the man who had been through so much, and all of the responders to the war, from little to big. In the face of evil and darkness, there was hope and goodness. “There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” - Sam (The Lord of The Rings)