One way to photograph the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State is to embed with Iraqi forces there. And so, with a driver, fixer and security adviser, I headed to west Mosul, where the four of us spent nearly three weeks with a troop of Iraq’s counterterrorism special forces.
We started in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is about two and a half hours from Mosul. You need a four-by-four vehicle to traverse the unpaved roads that lead to Mosul. We packed ours with provisions — body armor, helmets, chemical protection suits, sleeping bags — we thought we would need to sustain ourselves for up to 10 days in the field. We also brought plenty of food — most of which went uneaten. Iraqi hospitality demands that hosts feed their guests, even those at the front line in Mosul.
We knew we were getting close to the fighting when we started to see crowds of displaced people around the outskirts of the city. We saw more troops, more checkpoints. At times, we heard helicopters firing or airstrikes hitting their marks.
When we got within range of the front, we left our car and piled into an armored Humvee. (Iraqi forces consider nonmilitary cars a a threat since the Islamic State often uses them as suicide bombs.) Our driver stayed put in case we needed to leave the area quickly. A soldier brought us to where the rest of his unit was stationed.
(Many of the young soldiers here had witnessed years of front-line combat. Yet in moments of relaxation, many of these men are hardly distinguishable from others in their 20s who like to smoke shisha and talk about girls.)
Each time the unit moved forward, the troops took over whatever abandoned house they deemed safe and set up a temporary base inside. It could be a lavish villa with comfortable bedding and fans, but more often they resided in squalid, bombed-out ruins that were infested with bugs and sometimes with vermin.
Heat added an extra element of discomfort, with temperatures in May almost always over 100 degrees. Moving quickly, in full body armor and helmets, we sweat profusely and were easily fatigued.
As a way to disable the enemy, Iraqi troops would cut the electricity and water when entering a new area. This made living conditions more difficult and contributed to a sense of displacement and isolation. Often I had the feverish sense I had entered some sort of postapocalyptic world.
At night, we charged our phones with generators that also supplied power to radios used to communicate with men throughout the area. Without water, we washed with wet wipes.
During those late hours, troops would fire harassing mortar and flares. The tactic was designed to deprive Islamic State militants of sleep and to frighten them into immobility. It was unsettling to drift in and out of sleep as guns fired and explosives sounded.
It did not help, of course, to know that the enemy was nearby. Often we heard of Islamic State fighters that the Iraqi troops had encountered earlier in the day. It was easy to imagine they might still be in the area waiting to carry out a surprise nighttime attack.
Operations began early. In May, the sun would rise around 4:30 a.m., and the day quickly heated up. After a cup of tea, and maybe some bread and cheese, we’d head out with the troops.
I was embedded one afternoon with a unit that was trying to take out nearby Islamic State fighters, so nearby that airstrikes, called in by Iraqi forces, were uncomfortably close to our position. One hit less than 100 meters from where I sat in the living room of an abandoned house. The explosion sucked the air out of the room. Debris rained down for several seconds. My security adviser, John, and I decided to pull back from the front line. The Iraqi soldiers kept pushing forward, though, and without their escort, we had to find our way alone, through rat holes and abandoned houses.
Highly trained advisers like John, who has years of military experience and medical training, are essential in events like this. I was very lucky to be near John when a mortar, presumably fired by the Islamic State, landed less than six feet away. We were in the front room of a house Iraqi soldiers were using as an operating base. You don’t hear a direct hit before it lands; I remember a massive explosion and the flash of a fireball. John’s quick wits and the extensive support network that The New York Times has in place enabled us to get out of the area quickly and in one piece.
While I was in the field I focused on the action, not wanting to tempt myself with the idea that I had captured all that was needed to tell the story of battle. Each night I downloaded photographs taken earlier in the day and took notes on what I had witnessed: “intense fighting near the old city in al-Saha” or “sniper fire over people fleeing the front line.”
But I didn’t spend much time looking at the images. I don’t edit until I am home, in a hotel or otherwise at a safe remove from the midst of battle, where combat, chaos, and explosions seem normal and it is easier to forget that I am witnessing something most people will never experience.