(Kadri Mahmoud)

“We Experienced Chaos:” Joshua Baker on Filming “Battle for Iraq”

January 31, 2017
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Joshua Baker arrived in Mosul in November 2016 ready to document the month-old battle to free Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS control. The U.S.-backed offensive pitted Iraqi forces against ISIS snipers and suicide bombers.

While early news reports focused on the progress that Iraqi counter-terrorism forces were making on the eastern edge of Mosul, Baker soon realized there were few safe zones for the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in and around the city. Families with children lived close to gunfire and bore the brunt of the conflict.

“You have this street to street fight going on between two groups that are intent on killing each other in the most brutal way possible and then you have civilians living amongst that fight,” he said.

In the FRONTLINE documentary, Battle for Iraq, Baker and Iraqi-born reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad follow an elite Iraqi special operations unit known as the Golden Division through Mosul for an on-the-ground view of the battle, before traveling to hospitals and refugee camps in the region. At one point, they survive an ISIS truck bomb that exploded just outside the home where they were staying. Baker fractured his spine during the blast.

In the following interview, Baker reflects on the bombing, his time reporting in Mosul and the devastating effect of the war on civilians in Iraq.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

After spending a day with the special forces unit, your team retreated to a house about a mile away from the front line in Mosul. What was it like to be in an civilian’s home so close to the battle?

It was very surreal because we entered this house where kids were playing — it felt like a different world to what was going on in the street outside and throughout the city. It felt like a home and it felt safe. We laid down in a room with a couple of army officers and the father of the house. I slept quite well — as well as you can in an active war zone. You still hear bombs going off and bullets firing in the distance.

The sense of security that you felt there was soon shattered. Tell us what happened.

The next morning, we could hear our guys shooting at something. Ghaith went to have a look and was confronted by an Iraqi soldier who said, “Car bomb! Car bomb!” There was a bang and then this massive cloud of dust just accelerated past us. I remember looking at Ghaith and he just disappeared into dust. Then, the house fell on us.

Ghaith managed to escape but I was buried under the rubble. There was just complete confusion. You’re in darkness, you can hear a lot of noise, a lot of screaming and you don’t really know what’s happening. You’re waiting for all the dust to clear and some light to emerge through the cracks. I eventually dug myself out.

We started digging through the rubble for our camera equipment, but what I actually found was a soldier, an Iraqi soldier who slept next to me that night. Somehow the blast had buried me almost on top of him. We helped him out and he was alive but he was not in a very good way. I turned around to try and get my gear out from the front of the house, but there was not a front of the house anymore. It had literally collapsed. I moved down the street trying to give first aid.

The blast, we would later find out, broke my back, it fractured the vertebrae of my spine, it lodged shrapnel in the top of my head, which is still there, and in my back.

“I remember looking at Ghaith and he just disappeared into dust. Then, the house fell on us.”

What happened to the family you were staying with?

The civilians bore the brunt of this attack. Some were killed but we don’t know how many. Certainly a lot were injured. What was really sad was that a lot of children were injured.  There were three children in the house that night, and I simply do not know what happened to them.

There are still hundreds of thousands of civilians living in Mosul. What options do they have?

When a bomb like this goes off, their only option is to make it to an aid station on the edge of Mosul. That in itself can be quite a task. For the ones who lose their homes, they are confronted with either being homeless or going to a refugee camp.

Iraq was in a state of humanitarian crisis even before the battle of Mosul. There are a huge number of refugees, internally displaced people, within Iraq itself. The battle in Mosul is only adding to that burden. So far, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the battle for Mosul, and that number is only going up.

You chose to keep filming despite the injuries you sustained from the bombing. Why was it important to you to document the blast’s aftermath? 

We were trying to show the brutality that the civilians of Mosul are experiencing day to day. We experienced chaos for 45 minutes to an hour. They experience this every day. Neighborhoods get hit by multiple car bombs a day. We had one. It was really important to be able to come out of that and actually show what they experience.

There’s a moment in the film where Abdul-Ahad meets with a captured ISIS fighter. The man claims to be remorseful, and he explains why he was compelled to join ISIS. Are viewers supposed to empathize with him?

That scene exists to try and get people to think a little bit more about why people join organizations like ISIS. People who join ISIS are not all barbaric, bloodthirsty human beings. Some are intelligent, professional and successful people. ISIS is the most barbaric terrorist organization hands down, but in the beginning it was able to take control of many areas with relative ease and the acceptance of local people. For many, ISIS offered an alternative to the oppression they had experienced at the hands of the Iraqi army. The conditions were right for ISIS to take control.

The captured fighter talks about the fact that ISIS came in and removed the oppression that he had experienced under the Iraqi government. But Ghaith tells me that the fighter’s tears at the end are crocodile tears. There’s a very big difference between trying to survive under ISIS, and working with them to kill countless civilians, women and children, which is exactly what that man did.

“ISIS’s ability to adapt to its environment is incredible and that is why this is such a bloody fight.”

War is such an ancient phenomenon but this battle is taking place in 2017. You captured footage of ISIS using drones. How are drones and other new technologies shaping the battle in Mosul?

Over the last two years, ISIS has built countless suicide bombs, armor trucks, they’ve even dug tunnels using professional tunneling equipment. They are using toy commercial drones as intelligence gathering tools and weapons. The fact that ISIS has got these things — which are basically kids toys — fitted with explosives and will fly them off and try to kill people with them was pretty bizarre. ISIS’s ability to adapt to its environment is incredible and that is why this is such a bloody fight.

Abdul-Ahad says he arrived in Mosul feeling a glimmer of hope that the war might end after liberating Mosul. But having seen the situation on the ground, he doesn’t think peace will come easily. Did you feel the same way?

Mosul is a battle that’s going to go on. It’s not going to be done in the next months. As a result, more civilians will be injured and displaced. The short-term goals are to liberate Mosul and destroy ISIS. The long-term goals are to try and reunify the country. But how you achieve the short-term goals — such as securing a block inside Mosul — will have a fundamental impact on the ability for Iraq to heal. If the army alienates the civilians through brutality, then they run the risk of creating a new terror group that replaces ISIS or Al Qaeda. However, unlike long-term political goals, such as reuniting a fractured Iraq, the short-term goals can kill you. If you don’t clear an area correctly, a truck bomb can roll down the street and wipe out your unit. When this happens, the army needs to display real discipline and not take it out on the civilian population. Even though it is not unlikely that people on that street may have informed ISIS of your location, it’s a tough battle. 

What are you hoping viewers will come away with after watching the film?

I really hope that people will empathize with what the people of Mosul are going through. And try to understand that they have lived under oppression, be that prior to ISIS, during ISIS’s reign, and now in this bloody, bloody battle that’s taking place.

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