From Mosul to Moria: ‘A US air strike killed all of my family’
An Iraqi refugee remembers the day when 12 of his relatives, including a six-month-old, died in the Battle for Mosul.
Lesbos, Greece – At 5am on October 1 last year, Mohamed set foot on a boat for the first time in his life, beginning a five-hour voyage in a small dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The smugglers had kept their charges – who were huddled together in the cold darkness – in limbo since midnight, waiting for the lights of the patrolling Turkish coastguard vessels to disappear.
“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” said the 22-year-old. “I was crying so much.”
Mohamed was lucky. The trip was uneventful and he arrived safely.
By midday, he was waiting to be processed in Moria, Lesbos’ main refugee camp.
“We had to wait nine hours in the cold. I hadn’t slept in days. My clothes were still soaked from the boat trip. I was shivering,” he said. “They didn’t give us anything. Only a small bottle of water and a few olives. I thought to myself, ‘Why did I come to this terrible place?'”
Born and raised in Iraq, Mohamed – who declined to give his last name or allow his face to be depicted to protect his anonymity – was eight years old when the US invasion began.
In 2014, he was a teenager when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) took his hometown of Mosul in 2014.
And he was 20 when the Iraqi army, with the aid of a US-led coalition, violently took it back.
He finally fled the only home he had ever known and made his way to Europe.
The suffering caused by the violence he has witnessed and experienced, both in Iraq and on Lesbos, now shapes his ambition.
“It is my dream to help people,” he said. “I want to be a volunteer my whole life. I want to go wherever there is war, so that I can help people.”
Mohamed spends his days as an Arabic translator in a medical clinic that serves refugees, working for free. In the evenings, he rushes off to a shift at another facility, where he translates until 2am.
Sitting on a wooden bench outside the one-room clinic where he volunteers, he is able to take a break. None of the patients waiting to be seen speaks Arabic; they are all Africans, mainly Congolese and Cameroonians.
US forces made a lot of mistakes and a lot of people died from these mistakes. They would try to bomb an ISIL hideout, but they would miss and hit a house nearby. Sometimes, nine or 10 innocent people would die.
He looks down as he starts to talk about the events leading to December 26, 2016, and his voice trembles.
“I lost everything on that day,” he says, “my whole life”.
In 2014, Mohamed watched as ISIL fighters captured Mosul, with leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaiming the formation of an Islamic caliphate. The ISIL occupation was brutal.
On one occasion, he says, ISIL fighters held him in captivity and tortured him for 10 days.
In October 2016, the Iraqi army mounted an offensive, supported by coalition air raids, to take back the city.
The battles in Mosul were described by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top coalition commander, as “some of the most intense urban fighting since World War II”.
The Associated Press states that between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, with at least 3,200 lives lost as a result of coalition aerial bombardment, artillery fire or mortar rounds.
Mohamed is not surprised to hear these statistics.
“They (the US forces) made a lot of mistakes,” he says, “and a lot of people died from these mistakes. They would try to bomb an ISIL hideout, but they would miss and hit a house nearby. Sometimes, nine or 10 innocent people would die.”
On December 26, a Monday, fighting was still raging.
“I was staying with my grandfather, who was sick at the time. “His house was a few metres from my father’s.”
In the morning, Mohamed’s mother told him that ISIL had installed a sniper on his father’s roof. The sniper instructed the family not to leave.
“[The sniper] knew that the US would target the house if they thought there were no civilians inside,” Mohamed says. “Thirty minutes later, I heard an enormous explosion. I knew it was close.”
For three days, he was too frightened to check on his family.
“ISIL was still shooting at our neighbourhood. I was so scared. I couldn’t leave my grandfather’s house.”
After the Iraqi army announced that ISIL had left the area, it was safe for Mohamed to go outside.
“When I went to my father’s house, I saw that everything was completely destroyed. The building was nothing. When I saw that, my life stopped. My life stopped completely. I lost my whole family. I lost everything.”
All of Mohamed’s immediate family perished in the bombing: his father, 65, his mother, 53, his three brothers, 28, 25 and 19, and his three sisters, 32, 30 and 21.
He also lost his two sisters-in-law, 22 and 16, a one-year-old nephew, and a niece, six months.
A US Army spokesman told Al Jazeera he was unaware of the bombing of Mohamed’s house.
While he expressed sympathy for the innocent victims of the war in Mosul, he placed the blame for their deaths squarely on the shoulders of ISIL.
“The Coalition applies rigorous standards to our targeting process and takes extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants. In many instances, we called off strikes if we saw any civilians around. Unfortunately, [ISIL] brutally used Mosul citizens as human shields and snipers against those trying to escape,” the spokesman told Al Jazeera.
In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Lesbos was the main gateway to Europe for close to a million refugees and migrants.
A 2016 European Union agreement with Turkeyreduced the numbers, but the flow of those seeking refuge and asylum remains steady.
Until now, I ask myself every day, why am I still alive? Why did I not die with my family?
Today there are roughly 10,000 refugees on the island, 8,000 of which have been crammed into Moria, a facility that was originally built to house 3,000.
“The situation here in Moria is so bad,” says Mohamed. “There is no hot water. I’ve been living in the same tent with 13 other people. The food is so bad here. People get sick from it all the time. And you have to wait for hours in line to get it. There is only one toilet for every 70 people. And there is so much fighting.”
Many outside observers agree with Mohamed’s assessment.
Amnesty International called the camp an “open wound” for Europe and human rights. Luca Fontana, the field manager for Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), recently told Al Jazeera that Moria was worse than any camp he’d worked at in Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I’ve never seen the level of suffering that we are witnessing here on a daily basis,” he said. “Moria is the worst place I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Yonda Poslavsky, a Dutch psychologist who has worked in Moria on several occasions, believes it is no place for those who, like Mohamed, have already experienced trauma in their home countries.
“In Moria, many people have severe psychological problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of the people who have PTSD suffer from re-experiences, panic attacks and nightmares,” she told Al Jazeera. “Because Moria is not safe and there is no psychological help, there is no space to deal with trauma they have experienced previously. There is a lot of re-traumatisation.”
In July, Mohamed got a positive response to his application for asylum. He will receive a three-year permit to remain in Greece. He was also recently accepted onto a degree programme to study psychology at a university in Athens, staring late October.
Although Mohamed has already surmounted numerous obstacles, Poslavsky warns that trauma is hard to overcome.
“It will be very difficult to feel secure,” she said. “There might be issues of attachment with others, and there will be deep and irresolvable feelings of grief and sadness. There will be a high risk for PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders.”
Mohamed speaks excitedly about attending university, but his thoughts often return to his loved ones.
“Until now, I ask myself every day, why am I still alive?” he says, “Why did I not die with my family?”