31. Death in Mosul
A van driver took Tess, George, Carmen, Galina, Giuliana, and Eva to the regional Hezârfen Airport in Istanbul, where they boarded a private plane to the Incirlik airbase in Anatolia.
When the group arrived, Eric Clark, an American Air Force captain, met them on the tarmac. On the way to the hangars, he updated them on what was going on in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
“The battle against ISIS for Mosul is in its seventh month of grueling urban combat. Iraqi forces backed by American airpower pushed deeper into the last pocket of Mosul controlled by the militants. They have dislodged ISIS from all but a handful of districts in the western half of Mosul, including the Old City, where the jihadis are taking advantage of narrow streets and its dense population to make their last stand. There is no continuous front line, just a patchwork of battles in the city proper and on its edges. When ISIS fighters retreat from a position, they try to leave behind as much damage as possible, and they even burn oil field wells to conceal their movements. You are walking into the final phase of operations.”
Tess wanted to borrow an Apache chopper and an A-10 Warthog attack plane for additional firepower, but all such aircraft were committed to the final phase of the battle. She managed to get an armed Blackhawk helicopter. The officer made sure that Tess signed a receipt for the aircraft stating that NTC, General Morgan’s company, would be responsible for any damage to or loss of the helicopter.
Tess climbed into the cockpit and started the Blackhawk as her team piled in, each holding an assortment of weapons. Soon they landed on the outskirts of Mosul and reported their presence to the local Iraqi commander, Brigadier General Mustafa Moussa, who told them "Daesh, the Islamic State, is drawing its last dying breath. Their fighters are broken and quickly retreating from all fronts."
The General also told Tess to be careful. ISIS had a long time to prepare for this battle, and its fighters were taking advantage of an underground network of tunnels throughout the region. Since the jihadists were vastly outnumbered, they resorted to letting loose suicide car bombs and snipers embedded among thousands of civilians that ISIS was holding hostage.
Conditions in the area still under ISIS control were increasingly desperate as civilians resorted to eating weeds under allied bombardment that killed many of them. When government forces liberated an area, most civilians tried to evacuate. About 10,000 people a day left Mosul, and the flow of refugees had more than doubled since the final offensive started. However, the Islamic State was eager to keep as many civilians as possible in the urban center, using them as human shields against aggressive bombing campaigns by the government and coalition forces. Anyone seen fleeing risked a sniper attack. Whenever possible, government troops escorted families to safety, urging them to hurry through streets that offered little cover.
Once civilians reached a safe zone, the Iraqis provided buses and trucks to take them to camps for displaced people. On the way, they received food and water. People gravely injured from sniper fire, artillery, mortars, and mines were driven out of Mosul in ambulances to hospitals in nearby Erbil. During the fierce fighting, dozens of injured people arrived at the hospitals every hour. The problem was that field hospitals had inadequate supplies, so they evacuated victims to where they could treat them. Some did not survive the journey.
Tess, George, and the Valkyries returned to their helicopter and flew it to the area where Yasmin was last seen. An Iraqi Colonel met them at a makeshift airstrip.
“Good morning, Colonel Jaffari,” Tess saluted the officer. “I believe you were expecting us.”
“Yes, Major Turner. The U. S. command asked me to provide any assistance that you require.”
“I am looking for one of my people, Yasmin Badawi. I understand that she was in this area.”
“She was here to pick up supplies and ammunition and had three young female volunteer soldiers with her. I believe they were Yazidis. The last time I saw them, they were fighting Daesh on the Western outskirts of Mosul, in an area that we haven’t liberated yet.”
“If you can just let me know where they might be, I would appreciate it. Also, perhaps you have a vehicle that we could borrow.”
Ten minutes later, Tess and the team piled into a beat-up Humvee that had not seen maintenance in quite a while.
“Don’t these people know how to take care of equipment?” George asked.
“They have been in a battle for quite some time, George.” What Tess didn’t say was that if she was in charge, one could eat off a well-kept pristine vehicle.
They drove in the desert, passing columns of troops headed for the front. They soon knew that they were close to their destination when they encountered horrendous scenes of carnage. Fleeing before the Iraqi advance, ISIS had killed dozens of men and hung them from power lines. The Iraqis were using a crane to take the corpses down. Further down, hundreds of men, women, and children were on the ground in various stages of decomposition under the merciless sun. Iraqi soldiers had found a young girl who had survived two days by hiding under her dead mother’s burqa and were trying to convince her to go with them. Tess, George, and the Valkyries were experienced soldiers, but they were trying hard not to vomit. The stench of the dead bodies was overwhelming.
“It seems that ISIS is executing any civilians that want to escape the fighting,” Tess said. “The final stage is going to be brutal. The Colonel told me that ISIS is routinely using the locals as human shields. It’s difficult to fight them without killing innocent people.”
Tess and the team made it on foot to a section of the Old City of Mosul where Yasmin and the three girls were last seen. The scene was surreal. Rotting bodies of dead ISIS fighters and civilians still lay in the streets, many more buried under mountains of debris. Burned limbs from corpses were scattered in the streets and next to the wreckage of destroyed houses. The stench of death was pervasive, a combination of rotting flesh and human waste mixing with the smell of garbage and sewage leaking from broken pipes. The Team coped with nausea by avoiding deep breaths and by taking small sips of flavored sodium water from plastic bottles that the Iraqi forces gave them before allowing them to venture into the rubble that was once a vibrant city. The streets were littered with shoes, scarves, T-shirts, and dresses, the detritus of the civilians who fled abandoning their meager possessions. They also had to leave loved ones whom they will never get to bury. They left photos of their families, their identities, and documents.
Tess noticed a woman in a black robe and hijab, a scarf around her head. She caught her eye, waving for her to come toward the team. The woman looked like she needed help, but, as she approached, Tess failed to notice that she was hiding an M-16 rifle beneath her clothes. The woman pulled out the weapon and aimed the barrel toward Tess and would have killed her if it wasn’t for George and Giuliana instantly reacting to the threat by firing a burst of bullets at the attacker. The woman fell backward against a house and slowly slid down to the ground, leaving a trail of blood on the wall. Her eyes were still open.
Tess was shaken and tried not to show her moment of panic to her team, but she failed. She had to sit down on a pile of stones, trembling. Carmen came to her and hugged her.
“You are okay, Tess. It’s over. You are fine now.” Tess tried hard to stop shaking, but it took a few minutes to calm down. The Team gathered around her, and they all touched her, making her feel that was still alive.
Tess recovered from her brief shock and walked inside the house with Galina and Carmen and found the dead woman’s identification papers. She had a German ID card and a marriage certificate to a Russian Muslim fighter, issued by ISIS. The marriage, of course, would never be recognized anywhere else. ISIS had created its own system and contracts, records that were meaningless to a world that would never recognize the Islamic State.
An American Special Forces Lieutenant and two soldiers arrived in a Humvee. He stepped out of the vehicle, saluted and shook Tess’s hand.
“We were told you were coming, Major Turner. I must inform you that things are messy here, and you need to be careful. The Iraqis have lost many men, and we keep getting reports that they are now summarily executing captured ISIS fighters. If you go to the front lines, you need to brace yourselves for some horrible stuff.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant. We already had a preview. We will watch out.”
George drove the Team closer to the front lines and soon saw firsthand what the officer was warning them about. The Iraqis were executing ISIS prisoners at the front lines and killing others after interrogation. As the Team approached, Iraqi soldiers dragged an ISIS fighter on the ground, tied his hands and feet, stretched him on his back then crushed him by having a tank running over him. Other Iraqis were beating three ISIS fighters as they begged for their lives. It didn’t work. The captives were shot to death and trampled.
There was no room for pity. ISIS fighters, who repeatedly executed Mosul residents accused of collaborating with the Iraqi Army, created their own doom. The Iraqi forces now viewed them with disgust and hatred, and there were consequences.
That didn’t keep Basil Dubrey, a British Human Rights Watch’s representative, from introducing himself to the team.
“Major Turner, I am glad to meet Americans. I was hoping that you could intervene.
“Only three of us are Americans, Tess said. “The rest of my people are from all over the world.”
The man continued as if he hadn’t heard.
"As you know, Major, killing captured combatants or civilians is a war crime, as is the mutilation of corpses,” Dubrey complained. “Iraqi senior military officers, instead of disciplining their soldiers, seem to oversee some executions – or at least condone them.”
As they were talking, a white pickup truck with military markings approached, dragging a corpse by a rope attached to his ankle, as crowds cheered.
Dubrey now seemed close to getting a stroke, his face reddening in anger. “The Iraqi government should control its troops and hold them accountable. Mutilation of corpses is a war crime, as is killing captured combatants or civilians.”
Tess understood Dubrey’s valid concerns, but she doubted that at this stage, after the horrors they had seen, anyone could dissuade the Iraqi troops from seeking revenge. As they talked, an Iraqi soldier grabbed the corpse of a killed ISIS fighter, kicked it in the face, and spit on it. Another one stepped on the body and posed for a photo. A man in military uniform with an Iraqi Special Forces badge on the shoulder called for a razor, announcing that he wanted the head of the dead fighter. Dubrey told his cameraman to film the scene, and the soldier relented. He walked away, fury displayed on his face.
Children came by, dragging another dead fighter by a rope tied around his ankle. They kicked and beat his body with a branch, and a soldier kicked the corpse in the head several times. Men, both military and civilians, tied a rope to the dead man’s ankle and dragged the body away with a pickup as crowds cheered.
With the help of George’s language skills, Tess briefly talked to three local people. They said that they were residents of the neighboring village of al-Hud and had come down Qayyarah’s main road because they had received word that one of the dead ISIS fighters was the one who had killed a neighbor’s father and three of his uncles. They calmly proceeded to behead the corpse of the ISIS fighter and to cut out his heart. As he was packing the butchered organs into a canvas bag, the aggrieved man explained.
“I am going to present this heart to my mother.”
The team saw children congregating around four more corpses, one with various organs outside his body and covered in blood, and another stripped naked. The kids amused themselves by repeatedly kicking the bodies. Further out, someone had strung up a dead fighter by his leg, by the entrance to a bombed-out soccer field.
Dubrey was still hanging on with the Team and was becoming increasingly disturbed.
“The government cannot allow these atrocities to happen!”
“Mr. Dubrey, I understand your position,” Tess said, “but we must face the reality of the situation. The Iraqis are finally able to take their revenge against evil people, and frankly, we can’t stop them. It might as well be the Dark Ages.” She left the distressed man helplessly observing the mayhem.
As Tess and her team were ready to depart, they received a message from the local Iraqi commander warning them to be extra careful when approaching women coming out of the ISIS-occupied areas. Female fighters were now using their children as human shields in a last desperate attempt to stop the final advance on Mosul. Thirty-eight women had detonated suicide explosives near civilians and enemy forces. Moreover, ISIS women were mingling with refugees leaving the city. An Iraqi officer told Tess that a veiled woman at a displacement camp mingled with refugees and detonated an explosive device, killing 14 and injuring a further 13.
Tess had seen her shares of horrors caused by wars, but this latest development made her sick. Her team was also shocked.
“I guess we will never know if those women sacrificed their children to fight for ISIS, or if they were forced to do so. How can anyone in this culture allow that?”
The team got back on the vehicle and reached the artillery units that were pounding the city. Every round knocked down a house and raised a plume of smoke. The ISIS fighters trapped in the city were still fighting back, forcing the Iraqis to crouch on the ground. The whole area was a pile of rubble. Tess found an Iraqi officer and inquired about Yasmin.
“Ah, the fierce female warrior and her three followers,” the man said. “They are great snipers and helped us a lot, but I am afraid they left for Raqqa.”
“Do you know why?” Tess asked, quite annoyed at this point.
“Yasmin said that she wanted to be in Raqqa to participate in the final extermination of ISIS.”
Tess thanked the man and turned to her team. “Let’s go back to the chopper, guys. I think we are getting closer.”
As they were piling into the truck, they saw four Iraqi troops beat up a man, who was crying for mercy in French. Tess drove over and slammed on the brakes when they reached the scene. She and George stepped out.
“George, ask them why they are abusing this man. He doesn’t look like a terrorist.”
The Iraqis did not look pleased when George insisted that they stop hitting the man. He turned to the pitiful bloody mess on the ground and asked:
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man got on his knees and started to beg in French.
“Aidez-moi, s'il vous plaît. Je ne suis pas avec ISIS.”
“What did he say?” Galina asked.
Tess translated. “Please help me. I am not with ISIS.”
Tess approached the man and crouched in front of him. He looked familiar but could not remember where she had seen him.
“Why are you here?” she said in French.
“Please help me,” the wretched man begged. “I didn’t do anything. They just want to kill me for sport.”
“If we are going to help you, we need to know who you are,” Tess insisted.
One of the Iraqis walked behind the man and wrapped a cord around his neck. He tugged, choking him, then he kicked him in the kidney.
“Tell them who you are and what you did, you vermin,” the soldier said while kicking the man again for good measure.
In desperation, the man looked at Tess and her group and realized that they were his only chance.
“I just picked up some crates for my employer. I swear that’s all I did.”
The Iraqi tightened the rope.
“Tell them the rest or I will hang and disembowel you.”
“The man squealed and looked at Tess, terror in his face.”
“Please save me,” he said. “I will tell you what you want to know.”
George signaled the Iraqi to loosen the stranglehold.
Tess stood up and folded her arms across her chest.
“I am all ears. Talk.”
The Iraqi soldier kicked the man again and pulled him up to his feet.
The Frenchman was shaking in terror and looked at Tess imploringly as if she was the Madonna.
“I just picked up three crates for my boss. The rest of my group put them on a truck and sped away without me.”
“That was mean. You break my heart,” Tess commiserated. “Now tell me, what’s in those boxes, and where are they taking them?”
“I don’t know. I was just told to pick up the boxes.”
“I guess that we will have to leave you in the hands of these gentlemen,” Tess said sympathetically. “You don’t seem to be very useful.”
Two of the Iraqis approached with large unsheathed knives, an evil smile on their faces.
“No, please don’t leave me here,” the man started to shake again.
“All right. Talk, and we will take you with us,” George said.
“I am all ears,” Tess added. “You better tell the truth. We don’t have much time left. So, what’s in the crates?”
“The boxes contain dirty bombs made with spent nuclear fuel from Russia. ISIS put the weapons together, but now they can’t use them in combat because they are too hard to handle them now that they are under siege. We were told by our boss to pick them up and bring them back.”
“Bring them back to where?” Tess inquired while unsheathing a knife from her belt.
The man squealed again.
“Please help me. I don’t know. The other men ran off with them and left me behind.”
Tess’s patience was running out. She waved the knife in front of the man’s face and made a slight scratch on his cheeks.
“I am in a real hurry now. You have thirty seconds to spill the beans, or we will slice you like a cucumber.”
The man squealed again in terror.
“I will tell you everything you need to know. Just have this man take the rope off my neck.”
Tess nodded her head at the Iraqi, who reluctantly took the noose off.
“Okay, let’s have it. Everything.” She did not put the knife back.
“What is your name?”
“Who is your ‘boss’?”
“That name sounds familiar. Who is Dubois’s boss?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tess, his boss, is Laurent Belcour,” Galina said. “I remember him from his trial. He is the pimp and his partner.”
“Thanks, Galina. Now I remember.”
“So, how are you going to take the bombs out of the country and to Belcour?”
“I don’t know,” Joubert lied.
The Valkyries were assembled around the scene, enjoying Tess in action.
“Now observe Tess do her legendary act of persuasion,” Carmen said, smiling at her new colleagues, Eva and Giuliana.
Sure enough, Tess kneeled in front of the man and, with a flick of her knife, sliced off the fly of his pants.
“Last call to save your balls,” she said, pointing the knife at the man’s private parts. “How are you going to take the stuff out of the country?” She stabbed him enough to get his attention.
“Hold it. I will tell you,” Joubert suddenly remembered. “We have a private plane a few miles north of here. It’s supposed to fly to a small airport in Turkey. From there, we have arranged to bring the bombs to France. That’s all I know. Please help me,” he said plaintively.
“Ladies, let’s take this gentleman with us. We are running out of time.”
The Iraqis reluctantly let Joubert go after George put a thick wad of cash in their hands. The Valkyries tied up the Frenchman and kicked him into the truck. They returned to the helicopter and turned him over to the U. S. Army.