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Mosul, an inside story, part 3: The liberation and the destruction

Iraq -

Over the past few weeks, in a five-chapter series, we have been sharing an inside story of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. It is told through the eyes of former Cordaid employee Othman Khalil, who grew up in the city during the Iraq War and survived occupation by ISIS. In love with his maimed city, he began humanitarian work right after the liberation battle. And he hasn’t stopped since.    

“It is easier to keep an enemy from entering a city, than chasing an enemy out again. Especially ISIS. They had hijacked the entire population and used them as human shields throughout the military operations to liberate the city. We were living in the eastern part, where the Battle for Mosul started, in October 2016.

If you were lucky, your street or neighbourhood would be liberated by the counter terrorism division. They were known for being decent with people. Their precision attacks caused fewer casualties. We weren’t lucky. Our liberators, the Iraqi army, weren’t the worse ones, they were somewhere in the middle.

“Sometimes they freaked out. They used mortars randomly.”


They came with tanks, big tanks in narrow streets. They knew suicide attacks could happen any moment, and that there could be booby traps anywhere. It made them edgy and irritable towards all citizens. Sometimes they freaked out. They used mortars randomly.

The day they came, or rather the night, we knew it was the army. Inside our house, in the dark, we heard big loudspeakers on rolling tanks playing the national anthem and popular Iraqi songs. Soldiers singing. We knew there was a storm coming. Hope. Fear.

All together of just a few of us?

Under the staircase was the safest place. It was surrounded by concrete. So that’s where we hid, all of us: my parents, my two sisters, me and my two brothers. For hours. We’d have these conversations, debating what was better – dying all together, or losing only some of us. We all agreed that dying together was better.

At one point, there was a big blast in our street. It was an ISIS car bomb attack. After a while, we decided to look outside. A house was on fire and people were inside. ISIS would not allow anyone to help the family get out.

A Mosul hospital, bombed during the liberation battle, still in ruins (photo taken by Frank van Lierde in February 2023).

In our street alone, four houses were completely destroyed during the clashes. All of them blown up by car bombs and suicide attacks. Each house had at least ten people inside. Explosions had blown away parts of the façade of our house. Big bullets had penetrated the house. There was shrapnel all over. We were lucky to be alive, Alhamdulillah. Hiding under the staircase proved to be a wise decision.

“ISIS would never have knocked, they would have thrown grenades.”

Knocks on the door

In the early morning at four, when things had been calm for a while, there were knocks on our damaged front door. We immediately knew this was the army. ISIS would never have knocked, they would have thrown grenades. My mom and dad both went to open the door, and yes, there were soldiers, accompanied with informants. These informants went from house to house together with the soldiers. They had briefed the army and cleared our house. We were liberated.

Of course, we were happy. But also extremely worried. Our street was in ruins and dozens of people, neighbours, had been killed. What about our relatives? Our friends? Under occupation our mobile phones had been confiscated, so there was no way to find out if they were ok. What about our future lives? What about our city?

“It would take another nine months to liberate the rest of Mosul, street by street.”

Soon after the liberation, we started clearing the rubble, in and outside our house. We plastered the bullet holes and started reconstructing.

Large parts of Mosul still need rebuilding (photo taken by Frank van Lierde in February 2023).

It would take another nine months to liberate the rest of Mosul, street by street. I didn’t know this at the time, but I would soon find out. My life took a turn I would never have imagined. Before, I couldn’t stand seeing blood, not even a drop. Ultimately, I got to see a lot of it.”

Stay tuned

Next week we will publish Part Four of Mosul’s inside story where Othman explains his entry into humanitarian work within his torn and ruined city. Find it on our website or via our LinkedIn account.

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid