In conflict, it is often those with the smallest voices that pay the highest price.
The civilians—men, women and children—regularly make the ultimate sacrifice.
At best, those who perish become a statistic. In the battle to liberate Mosul, Iraq the record keeping was so poor many did not even become that.
In May and June of 2017 I was in West Mosul with a team of medics, a mix of Iraqi and Western doctors and nurses. The medical team was embedded with the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF) and though their focus was meant to be treating military casualties those who came through the gate were primarily dead or injured civilians.
While in Mosul I spent days and nights with the team, slept in their makeshift clinic and photographed their work. Most nights we were awakened by the sound of airstrikes in the Old City—the historical center of Mosul—less than 2km away. We‘d sit on the roof and watch orange balls of fires light the sky. It was beautiful, unless you knew what was happening on the ground as each strike hit their mark.
Described by U.S. officials as the most intense fighting since World War II, the battle for Mosul lasted more than nine months, from October 16, 2017 to July 20, 2017.
During that time thousands of civilians were killed; even today, the death toll is only an estimate. Most sources assert that between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, a number that is more than ten times higher than initially acknowledged. Of those deaths, Iraqi or coalition forces are responsible for an estimated 3,200 civilian deaths, a result of airstrikes, artillery fire or mortar round.
Civilians who made it to a medical facility like our "trauma stabilization point" (TSP) were among the fortunate. Intense fighting prevented many from seeking medical care and, per a Health Minstry report, “Most of those victims are simply described as “crushed”.
In 2022, most of us live an existence where battlefields are distant concepts and where technology has made war an abstract burden. When you read or watch the news and hear of an airstrike, a bombing or a shelling what do you think of, if anything? If you're like many, you may have never considered the individual, human face of war.
War looks like a lot of things. It looks like soldiers fiercely defending their country and it can look like the liberation and the defeat of evil. But it also looks like the death of civilians, often categorized as “collateral damage,” a sterile, anonymous phrase that permits the death of thousands to be labeled as a necessary byproduct.
This series of photographs contains images of death, dying and (some of) the realities of war.
An Iraqi man carries his son into a Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP), a mosque turned makeshift medical facility, following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq.
Lina, age 4, is treated at a medical Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) in West Mosul, Iraq on the night of June 12, 2017. A (coalition) airstrike hit the building where Lina, her family and several others were seeking shelter. With injuries to her face and torso Lina survived the blast; several others sustained serious injuries and at least two died.
An airstrike hits near the Al Nuri mosque within the Old City of West, Mosul Iraq on June 1, 2017. Less than three weeks later, on June 21, 2017, the Al Nuri Mosque would be destroyed when Islamic State fighters packed the building with explosives and reduced it to a pile of rubble. The mosque, a historic landmark for the city of Mosul, is also known as the site where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended a pulpit and declared a caliphate in the summer of 2014.
Zeinab, age seven, is carried into a hospital outside of Mosul, Iraq. The young girl was rushed to the hospital, itself partially destroyed by airstrikes, after medics at a Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) determined that she needed advanced care.
Following an airstrike on the afternoon of May 31, 2017, Zeinab, age seven, whose feet are seen in this photograph, is transported to Mosul Hospital. Her mother, grandmother and younger sibling accompany her.
A road sign indicating the direction for the cities of Erbil and Mosul is seen through a dust-covered windshield. Though in the same direction and less than 90 minutes from one other Mosul was reduced to rubble with dead bodies still in the street while Erbil boasted modern a nightlife, numerous shopping malls and modern conveniences.
Medics treat Ammar at a medical Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq. Inconsistent electricity sources often required medics to improvise, using headlamps or lights from cellphones in order to treat patients.
A doctor performs chest compressions on Zeinab, age seven, on Wednesday, May 31, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq. Zeinab was injured after her family's home was hit by a (coalition) airstrike; she died as a result of her injuries.
By June 2017 the majority of buildings in West Mosul, Iraq were destroyed, a result of airstrikes and street warfare.
Ali, age 7, is wrapped in preparation for burial. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq.
Ali’s mother, Noor, grieves over the body of her son as his sister, Amal, looks on. On the night of June 12, 2017 an airstrike hit Ali's neighborhood in West Mosul, Iraq. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma and arrived at the Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) "dead on arrival."
Ali's body sits outside Trauma Stabilization Point #2 in West Mosul, Iraq. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. Reports as recent as November 2017 assert that one in five coalition airstrikes in Mosul resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that initially acknowledge by the coalition. This disparity in civilian deaths, in conjunction with consistent failures to properly investigate claims of death or to keep thorough records, makes the battle to liberate Mosul one of the least transparent wars in recent American history. (New York Times, The Uncounted, November 16, 2017)
To many, war has become an abstract burden. To Ali and other young victims in the efforts to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, the burden of war is all they have known. For those that perish, they become a statistic, at best. In the battle to liberate Mosul, the record keeping was so poor that many did not even become that.