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Mosul, an inside story, part 4: Acute emergency aid – Saving people’s lives and seeing them shot

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.    

“Mosul had been besieged, captured, sealed off, liberated, and destroyed. The city was in ruins. People were broken, traumatised, and very suspicious. There was no trust, no cohesion. I was 21 and I didn’t have a degree. What should I do?

“It is my city, and I love my city. I was born here, I live here, and I will die here.”

People sometimes ask me ‘why didn’t you leave this hell hole’. They are wrong. It is not a hell hole. It is my city, and I love my city. I was born here, I live here, and I will die here. My heartbeat is connected to this place. Every time I leave the city, I feel uncomfortable.

Shopkeeper pictured in the old souk in February 2023. Until recently, this place, like most of the rest of the Old City, was practically abandoned.

I knew I was always meant to stay. I wanted to help. This might sound noble, but it’s not. It made me feel better to do my best for others. So in a sense, it’s also selfish.

Ambulances and checkpoints

I had a friend who worked with a fast response team of the government, driving an ambulance. I wanted to join them. They screened me, I got recruited and did a short training. It was voluntary work. So now, my friend and I were following the army during the liberation of the rest of Mosul. Not in the frontline, but in the second line, the support line. We did very basic medical things, like providing stability for the patient inside the ambulance and giving first aid.

“As a boy I was afraid of blood. During this ambulance work, I got used to it very quickly.”

We had to take patients to the hospital, which was outside the city. There were many Iraqi army checkpoints on the way. They checked whether patients were ISIS, soldiers, or civilians. We had to tell them what we had been told by the army when we received the patient. In case they were ISIS, soldiers would take out the patient and kill that person on the spot, male or female. We didn’t know anything about the patients, we didn’t know what was true, we just had to repeat what we had been told.

“We didn’t look”

We tried to save people’s lives, and at the same time, we saw them get shot. There were these ditches near the checkpoints. That is where they shot them. Most of the time we didn’t look. We heard the screams. It felt terrible. But something inside also neutralised this feeling. ISIS has done so many bad things to us.

Othman Khalil, business developer and former Cordaid employee in Mosul, in one of the most heavily bombed parts of the city.

As a boy, I was afraid of blood. During this ambulance work, I got used to it very quickly. I did this for five months, then I got recruited by MSF (Doctors Without Borders). Before, we had to take care of the living. Now, we had to take care of the dead, putting them in bags, and moving them to the ‘black zone’, for family members to come and see and collect the bodies.

Black, red, and blue zones

I had a double job with MSF. Being good at English and computer work, I did desk work in the afternoon, like keeping attendance sheets, and translating contracts. In the morning, we went into the city to collect dead bodies.

“One day, there was water distribution for people who had just been liberated. There was a big crowd.”

All this was during the battle for Mosul, so there was constant fighting going on, causing many casualties. We went back and forth between the war zones and the MSF hospital outside the city.

One day, there was water distribution for people who had just been liberated. There was a big crowd. Somehow, ISIS managed to carry out an attack. There were explosions. We happened to be near the place. It was just terrible. We had to act so fast. The dead went to the black zone, which was in the garage of the hospital. The dying were transported to the blue area, and the critically wounded to the red zone.

It was a horrible time. Before, I had never touched a dead body in my life. And now, all these bodies, this blood, the bits of flesh. When I was sleeping, I was okay. People near me said I had bad dreams, but I wasn’t aware of them. But during the day, graphic images kept haunting me. My parents were proud of the work I did. I was happy to get their support, but I didn’t tell them about the darkest parts. Otherwise, they would have told me to stop.

From body bags to business development

I worked with MSF for about a year. Then I had the opportunity to switch from emergency aid to longer-term business development and youth employment. Why switch? I had to move on. The salary was good, but I knew I wouldn’t go anywhere, in terms of personal development. MSF had recruited me for my English and PC skills. Too many people could compete with me in those fields. I had to put my eggs in a different basket. I had to jump higher.

Othman has personally supported hundreds of young entrepreneurs in Mosul in the post-war years, many of them through Cordaid-run projects. Here is talking to one of them.

And I did. I stopped carrying the bodies of dead people and caring for the wounded and started something new. I knew that having an income again, a job, and a business, was the most important thing for the people of Mosul to get on their feet again. Not only because of the money. It’s also about self-respect and dignity. A job, a business, is all about working with others, about interaction. About slowly learning to trust others again. That’s what this torn and ruined city needed.”

Stay tuned

Next week we will publish the final instalment of Mosul’s inside story told by Othman. Find Part 5 on our website or via our LinkedIn account.

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid