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Mosul left in rubble, crews search for bodies of family members

July 17, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Mosul's old city is a scene of utter devastation. Although Mosul has been liberated, the fight continues in some pockets. Entire neighborhoods have been flattened by coalition airstrikes in the battle against the Islamic State, leaving few survivors to search for remains of family members. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Alessandro Pavone report on the human toll.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One week ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory over ISIS in Mosul. But reality on the ground is different, as the fight continues in parts of the Old City against ISIS holdouts.

As special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Alessandro Pavone report, the human toll of the fighting is becoming apparent. And it is horrific.

A warning: Many viewers may find images and accounts in this story disturbing.

MARCIA BIGGS: This is what so-called liberated Mosul looks and sounds like, in a small pocket of the Old City, the war against ISIS seemingly ongoing. And this is the Old City from ground level, a scene of utter devastation, entire neighborhoods flattened by coalition airstrikes, leaving the few survivors to search for the remains of their loved ones.

Bashar and Ali’s families were together in this house hit by an airstrike 28 days ago. Ali names the dead one by one.

ALI, Mosul Resident (through interpreter): My mother, three brothers, three sisters, my father, two sisters-in-law, two nieces.

MARCIA BIGGS: And you’re the only one left from your family.

ALI (through interpreter): Yes.

MARCIA BIGGS: Shu Bedak Tamel, what are you going to do now?

MAN (through interpreter): What can I do? I just want to take the bodies out and bury them.

MARCIA BIGGS: Mosul is the capital of Nineveh Province and it is the men of Nineveh’s civil defense unit that are responsible for pulling the dead out of the rubble.

They arrive with their crude tools, an ancient jackhammer, a broken sledgehammer, and when all else fails, they use their hands. One of the family members is adamant that the family is under this spot in a washroom. “Just open the hole,” this family member says.

But trying to drill through over a foot of concrete proves impossible and one of the relatives finds another way into the house. So we enter the ruins in the dark.

So this was the washroom they were talking about. He’s saying there’s a baby inside.

In total, they are looking for 18 bodies. There were two families in the adjoining houses that night. Bashar lost six members of his family, including his wife and four children.

BASHAR, Mosul Resident (through interpreter): We tried to escape the day before, but ISIS shot at us. We ran back to the house and the army told us, stay inside. We will evacuate you when we make the area safe.

But the next morning, the airstrike hit our house. There were two bombs.

MARCIA BIGGS: Were you in the house when the explosion happened?

BASHAR (through interpreter): Yes, but I was near the front door of this house. I was the only one who didn’t get injured, along with my neighbor’s family. And my youngest daughter was rescued by the army. She’s still alive.

MARCIA BIGGS: The remnants of life that night are frozen in time. Food sits uneaten on the kitchen counter, but the clock still runs. Hours pass, then finally a breakthrough.

It’s a skull. So they’re telling me they have no idea who that little girl was. There were six or seven little girls in that room, and the body is so decomposed, all there is, is a skull.

The search for remains lasts all day, with relatives waiting nervously. “God protect them,” this one says.

They found four bodies out of 18, 14 left to go. The smell of death is unbearable.

For the members of Mosul’s civil defense, it’s an ordinary day. The day before, they pulled 19 bodies from the rubble.

Rabih Mishaal Mohamed is a sergeant with the unit, all of whom are working without pay.

RABIH MISHAAL MOHAMED, Nineveh Civil Defense (through interpreter): The hardest part is when you see a child under the rubble because he is innocent, he is a child. He has nothing to do with the army or ISIS or anyone.

MARCIA BIGGS: Why do you do this?

RABIH MISHAAL MOHAMED (through interpreter): It is very difficult for us, but they are like family, our brothers our fathers, mothers, friends. If we don’t take their bodies out, who will come and do that? So we withstand it. We have to withstand it.

MARCIA BIGGS: Withstand it, they must. It’s a scene that will play out again and again in the days to come, a tiny sliver of comfort to the families, who are clinging to what little they can find.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Marcia Biggs in the Old City, West Mosul, Iraq.

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