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Why the human toll of the battle for Mosul may never be known

More than a year has passed since the brutal battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS ended. But parts of the city, which was pummeled by both sides in the conflict, remain in shambles, marked by booby traps and buried bodies. As residents strive to return to normal life, the city’s governor, Nawfal Hammadi, is tasked with reconstruction. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been more than a year since Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, recaptured the city of Mosul from ISIS. The militants had taken over Iraq's second largest city in 2014.

    The punishing campaign to dislodge ISIS destroyed vast swathes of the city's western sector.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson was recently in Mosul.

    As she reports, the process of rebuilding is painfully slow, and the grim task of accounting for the huge numbers of people killed there may never reach closure.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When ISIS fighters made their last stand in Iraq, they chose to make it here.

    Mosul's Old City was surrounded by Iraqi government troops in 2017 and bombarded by U.S.-led airstrikes. Buildings were pounded into rubble. Rubble was pounded into dust.

    Ground troops fought house-to-house. Well, over a year later, the area is still a tangle of debris. Heaps of smashed buildings stand as monuments to the lives destroyed here.

    It's this man's job to make life bearable again, Nawfal Hamadi, Mosul's governor. He took the "NewsHour" on a tour of the city's hardest-hit areas. An estimated $2 billion worth of damage was done here. Homes, schools, shops, almost everything in the Old City has been destroyed.

    People begged him for help. Thousands of bodies have been pulled out from underneath these ancient lumps of stone. And ISIS bombs still litter the area. The militants produced explosive suicide belts on an industrial scale, like this one police officer Amjad Ibrahim noticed spotted as we walked by.

    A year after the conflict, there's still danger here.

  • Amjad Ibrahim:

    At least this is a suicide belt. It's obvious. There is still a lot of booby-trapped stuff, like children's dummies and footballs. We are always telling people to stay away from these houses, because most of them are booby-trapped.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The U.N. pays for teams of men to work together clearing the debris, a rare chance for a paycheck in a city with little opportunity.

    Just opening paths through the rubble has been a major achievement. Yet the central government is offering little help and has not yet given anyone the money need to help rebuild their homes here.

    Shaima Aziz is done with waiting. The only way she can get a roof over her children's heads is with her own bare hands, one cinder block at a time. She is determined to rebuild this home from the wreckage.

  • Shaima Aziz:

    We are cleaning the bricks to make a wall. We will build a wall here, and get a door.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She can no longer afford the rent where her family is sheltering. Her husband found work as a laborer at work across town, so she has no choice but to do this all on her own.

    This is the best they can hope for. There is no running water, no electricity. They just hope to be able to build the walls up enough to be able to take shelter and sleep here.

    They, like thousands of other civilians here, were held by ISIS as human shields during the fighting, Shaima told us.

  • Shaima Aziz:

    The ISIS soldiers were hiding with us in the basement, telling us, "If you leave, we will kill you."

    We barely managed to escape and sneak out. Every minute, there were people dying, men, women and children, our relatives, neighbors from the area, dead.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    How many of those men, women and children, relatives and neighbors, were killed here will likely never be known? But it's surely much higher than the estimates given by the Iraqi government.

    Official figures only take into account the bodies that have been found, saying 2,600 civilians died and 2,500 ISIS fighters were killed during the offensive to retake the city, which lasted from October 2016 into July 2017.

    But investigations by the Associated Press and NPR estimate anywhere between 5,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed in the fighting. A former vice president of Iraq says Kurdish intelligence believes a staggering 40,000 perished here. Many of those are still buried deep under this rubble.

    When ISIS withdrew to the Old City, it gave them a tactical advantage on the battlefield. These ancient narrow streets were impossible for most of the vehicles of the Iraqi army, forcing those soldiers to come in here on foot, which was treacherous for them. In turn, that brought on more airstrikes into the area. And as those bottles raged, civilians hid in the ancient basements like this.

    The battle for Mosul was one of the most brutal urban warfare campaigns in modern history. U.S.-led coalition warplanes dropped bombs that leveled building after building. Iraqi troops are believed to have endured casualty rates not seen since World War II.

    The government banned filming of injured soldiers and never released the real numbers of its troops killed in battle. But it was civilians, trapped inside this killing field, who paid the highest price, in part due to an easing of the rules of engagement for U.S. military strikes, as the fight for Mosul began.

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, the rules of engagement include elements of how many civilians are acceptable to harm or kill during operations. And those standards were lowered in late 2016. So, as a consequence, the military was able to move faster in the Mosul operations, but it also increased risk to civilians.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analysis is a former senior adviser at the State Department.

  • Larry Lewis:

    There's also a strategic argument that the U.S. military moved that, by moving more quickly, they could end the occupation and thereby reduce civilian suffering. So, it's a complex calculus.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The governor, back in his office, pointed out that victims of this war include those killed by ISIS in its iron-fisted occupation of the city. The mass graves of their victims are still being discovered.

  • Nawfal Hamadi:

    During ISIS rule, the numbers of people killed are unknown. ISIS killed people who were in the security forces. They also killed people who participated in elections, like candidates.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Younes Hassan is a skilled welder, and that ability helped him fix up his own home all alone. ISIS evicted him and his wife. And, when the battle ended, he says he found the corpses of Russian ISIS fighters and more than half of his neighbors dead.

  • Younes Hassan:

    The American government and the Iraqis are saying not too many civilians area dead. No, a lot are dead. All of these houses were filled with people. All their homes were destroyed, and they died in them. Very few managed to escape.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    His house is by the river, which divided government-controlled territory from ISIS-held areas. It was at this spot many desperate people tried making it out, only to be caught and executed by the group.

  • Younes Hassan:

    It was forbidden to leave your house. If you left, they would kill you. All along the river here, people were killed by dusk because they tried to flee. That house there, they dug out 50 bodies stacked up on top of one another.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Younes' restored home, freshly painted in violet, stands as a remarkable sign of life amongst the ruins. Mosul's east side, the first part of the city freed from ISIS, is now getting back to normal. Busy markets and traffic are a part of everyday life here.

    But across the river, the west side remains a pile of wreckage and dangerous unexploded bombs. Soldiers don't like guarding the Old City after dark. They told us they hear the voices of ghosts amid the rubble, the sound of children playing deep in the night, and the voices of the innocent killed in a war they couldn't escape.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Mosul, Iraq.

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