Unless you have made adequate arrangements, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO WHAT WE DID TODAY. At of the time of posting, Mosul remains an active war zone. Although ISIS/ISIL/Daesh has fallen to the Iraqi forces and Mosul has been recaptured by the Iraqi government, pockets of resistance belonging to the Islamic State remain at large — even today a suspected ISIS jailer was captured fleeing a few feet away from us as we were waiting at the checkpoint outside of Mosul.
Our trip to Mosul today was based on a personal decision where unique conditions on the ground at the time were relatively favorable to going — the consequences of your actions may differ from what happened to us, as any attempt to travel to Mosul or recreate this itinerary is entirely of your own accord.
To be once again explicitly clear: If you do decide to travel to Mosul, you are going on your own as The Monsoon Diaries and our travel partners at Young Pioneer Tours and Kurdistan Iraq Tours assume ZERO and NO responsibility for you, your well-being, your safety, and for whatever consequences that befall you if you are to be caught and persecuted by the Islamic State, the Iraqi Government, militia groups, Pershmerga, or the Kurdistan Regional Government.
This morning I ventured on the “Highway To Hell” into Mosul. And at the last minute I recruited 2 others to join along:
Venla — 3 days ago, while getting to know the Young Pioneer Tours group on their last day in Kurdistan, I met a fellow traveler from Finland named Venla, who was planning to stay here another month to interview various local women for her project on women’s rights. We struck up a quick friendship and walked together around nearly the entire city of Erbil together the day after. To make the world even smaller, she has been planning to be in Kuwait the same exact day I’m planning to be there in 3 weeks!
João — The next morning while having breakfast at my hotel I met a fellow travel blogger from Portugal: João of Nomad Revelations. I recognized his travel site, and so did he with mine, so it was remarkable how we had heard of each other before finally crossing paths in Iraq; I felt it was as if we were part of this exclusive little travel club. He’s also way more famous than I am, having done this for 15 years and traveling for the past 7 months driving a van with both his wife Anna and his son Daniel!
Neither hesitated at the chance to come with me to Mosul. We all went to bed by midnight deciding to go.
Just like our destination itself, it is simply remarkable to witness how circumstances can change so quickly.
Mosul was once a beautiful, thriving, cosmopolitan city on the forefront of the civilized world, and Iraq’s second largest with a diverse population of 2.2 million people.
It then fell into notoriety of the modern day when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, becoming prominent in the news as the city where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in a gun battle with Coalition Forces in 2003. For the next decade the city languished for the next decade under US occupation, Iraqi military infighting, and government corruption.
A growing power vacuum and worsening conditions led to its eventual capture by a mere 1500 ISIS/ISIL/Daesh soldiers in 2014, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” at the Great Mosque Of Mosul.
An exodus of half a million refugees over 48 hours soon followed and the Iraqi Government Forces, allied militias, the Kurdistan Pershmerga, and other international forces made 2 subsequent unsuccessful attempts to retake the city from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in 2014 and 2015.
It was not until October 16th, 2016 when “the mother of all battles” would earn its nickname: A major military offensive Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” was launched, with allied forces attacking ISIS-controlled areas on 3 fronts, village to village, in the surrounding area outside Mosul. This was the largest deployment of Iraqi troops and the world’s single largest military operation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
On November 1st, 2016, Iraqi Special Operations Forces entered Mosul from the east where they were held back by formidable defenses and the presence of civilians. The “full liberation of eastern side of Mosul” was declared on January 24th, 2017, and the offensive to recapture western Mosul began on February 19th, 2017.
Nearly 5 months later on July 9th, 2017 — exactly 10 months ago to this day — the Iraqi Prime Minister arrived in Mosul to announce victory over ISIS, even though heavy fighting would continue in a final pocket of ISIL resistance in the Old City for almost another 2 weeks.
I know it would be easy for anyone to criticize us for coming here in the first place but when you take what was once a thriving, rich, educated city that had so much history and promise, and have it quickly crumble under the effects of government corruption, international complacency, foreign imperialism, domestic terrorism, and indiscriminate violence, you can’t help but bear witness to your own history in the making. We travel to these places to fully appreciate how similar circumstances could easily befall the very same cities that the more fortunate of us reside in and take for granted today.
We travel because we care.
History knows that Mosul has been more the rule than the exception: All of us must begrudgingly accept that what happened to Mosul can also happen to us, and that some of us are compelled to our duty as human beings to fully internalize that reality — blankets of security can easily be snatched away if we remain complacent to what is going on the world outside our bubbles.
And so today, we decided to briefly step outside that bubble.
At 6:30am this morning, João, Venla and I congregated at the lobby at my hotel, where Abdallah picked us up and took us to the Christian Ankawa district to meet his friend who worked in the Iraqi government at 7am.
About 20 minutes later his convoy arrived and we set off for Mosul at 7:30am. It was clear his friend was a big deal as every checkpoint we passed through was waving us off.
At around 8:30am we passed the last Kurdish checkpoint — the one where we hung out at yesterday morning and marked by Kurdistan’s red, green, and white flags — and drove a few hundred meters towards the first Iraqi checkpoint, distinctly marked by red, white, and black flags.
We just managed to slip by until one of the officers flagged a man in one of the convoy jeeps behind us: although he was here on an official project, he had a Maltese passport and it was not logged in their system.
Since Abdallah’s friend was not going to leave without the Maltese guy, this led to an unplanned 2 hour wait from 9am to 11am as shit was being handled.
We would then be told the excessive 2 hour wait was due to their having just caught an ISIS jailer trying to flee the city a few feet away from us. We had shrugged this off as a made-up excuse at the time, but a news article João sent me later proved that they were telling the truth: Iraqi security says Islamic State’s jailer arrested in Mosul.
As Abdallah and his friend tried to speak with the captain and calling higher offices to let us through on our own without having to wait for the Maltese guy, some of the border guards began asking to take photos with us. Even their captain joined in and tried to practice his English.
By the time 11am rolled around I started to get antsy: I calculated it would take at least an hour and a half to drive back from the airport for my 4pm flight, let alone 2 hours from Mosul itself with all the checkpoints and potential further drama. I also had left my backpack at the hotel that I still needed to pick up AND I hadn’t yet checked in for my flight (Erbil’s airport doesn’t allow online check-in). I was beginning to consider giving up on Mosul, turning around for the airport, and having João and Venla go on without me.
At 11:10am I became more serious about heading back to the airport as every passing minute was another potential chance I would miss my flight home. Abdallah even began to reason it would be impossible for me to do both Mosul and make it back to Erbil’s International Airport on time.
When 11:20am came around, Abdallah turned our car around towards Erbil in a decision to give up on Mosul, until the captain and his border guards told us “5 more minutes.”
Although those 5 minutes would turn to 15, we felt something was eventually going to give. Finally at 11:35am we got a call from higher authorities and were allowed to turn our car back around and drive onwards to Mosul: Everyone got cleared. I reasoned then that even a few minutes in Mosul may be worth it if I could still make it back in time for my flight.
Alas, it was around this moment and given the context of where we were going, I started to become self-aware of my entitlement to first world problems. One of the kids that had been selling us biscuits and water at the checkpoint had been telling us how one morning he woke up to a bomb dropping on his house and killing his only brother. His family now sleeps in rubble. Another boy said he hasn’t gone to school since it was destroyed a year ago and he “doesn’t know” when he’ll ever go back to anything resembling an education. And here I was feeling frustrated over possibly missing a plane back home.
So I decided to stop worrying about a stupid flight: We go without reservations — we would never have another chance at this ever again.
We drove on towards Mosul, first passing by a refugee camp for those who lost their homes during the conflict.
About a few kilometers outside the side, we turned a hard right to take a back road and avoid the traffic.
By 11:45pm we reached Mosul’s city limits on the east side, the same side where Iraqi Special Ops entered on the dawn of November 1st, 2016 to retake the city back from ISIS. This was where we began to see the extent of the city’s devastation.
Bullet holes lined their walls of the few buildings that remained standing. This was their reality.
As we went deeper into the heart of the city, we passed by a large makeshift mound topped by a few military bunkers overlooking the city.
Once past the mounds, we saw some of the rebuilding efforts and a few new, modern buildings. The reconstruction costs are estimated to be $50 billion USD, $1 billion alone going into Mosul Old City.
Nevertheless, some structures were waiting for a full demolition:
We eventually hit the very center of the city. Perhaps a sign that a way of normal civilized life was returning were the traffic jams. But then we realized that’s probably because most of their bridges have been destroyed.
We then reached the ruins of the once internationally renowned University of Mosul, now destroyed at the hands of ISIS.
To give you an idea, this was University of Mosul before ISIS:
And this is how it looks today:
We took a chance at stepping outside our car to get some fresh air. Everyone on the streets immediately stared at us. At one point Iraqi military came by and thought Venla was a bride of ISIS until João stepped in and charmed them out of suspicion.
From here you can go further into Old Mosul, where 4000 bodies are still reportedly buried under the rubble and the smell of death still permeates the air:
When we got out of our car at the ruins of the University of Mosul, Abdallah arranged for a local friend to take João and Venla under his care for the next few hours while Abdallah would take me back to the airport.
So as João and Venla stayed behind to explore more of Old Mosul, Abdallah and I sped back out towards Erbil, breaking every single traffic violation that could be broken in a still active war zone, including speeding into the direction of oncoming traffic:
Scenes of devastation continued to follow us on our way out.
As we were left the city, we drove along an endless caravan of trucks carrying wreckage and rubble as part of the cleanup process.
Abdallah would make good time and thanks to our earlier befriending of the border guards this morning, we were whisked right through the 3 Iraqi checkpoints back into Kurdistan.
It was ironically the last Kurdish checkpoint that gave us the most difficult time, but somehow we still got through.
By 2:20pm we approached Erbil International Airport. Given the lack of time to pick up my stuff at the hotel, Abdallah and I instead called for the hotel to send a driver over with my bag.
Remarkably, that worked better than I thought. A driver pulled through and I was reunited with my bag outside the entrance to the airport road by 2:35pm just as we were about to turn in. I gave the driver 10,000 dinars for his troubles.
I still needed to check into my flight, however, and I had until 3pm (an hour before departure) to do so. You’d think that arriving at the airport by 2:40pm I’d have plenty of time, but Erbil’s International Airport is different: there are at least 4 layers of security you need to go through before you even reach the airport!
First they searched our entire vehicle with bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, armed guards and by opening all our compartments.
Then after saying goodbye to Abdallah, I rushed into a separate airport building called the “Meet & Greet Area.”
Here they checked for confirmation of my boarding passes (so if you haven’t checked in, you’ll need to show copies of your bookings), x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.
After this you have to wait for a separate bus to take you to the main departure terminals.
It was now 2:53pm which I meant I had only 7 minutes left to make it to the check-in counter.
By 2:57pm there was still no bus, and I resigned that I was going to miss this flight. Then I noticed one of the people who was waiting with me for the bus hop into a waiting taxi. I ran after and asked if we could take taxis to the departures terminal instead of waiting for the bus. When he nodded I then pleaded if I could join him. His name was Haithan, who was heading to Dubai, and thanks to the kindness of strangers he gave me a free ride to the terminals (he first asked for 5,000 dinars but since I only had $20 USD bills he instead let me go for free).
By 2:59pm we reached the departures terminal and thanking Haithan as I ran out, grabbed my bags and encountered another security screening process. Once again they checked my confirmations, x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.
I then sprinted towards the check-in counters, making it sort of just in time at 3:02pm where they said they’d allow me an extra few minutes just because Erbil is notorious for not accepting online check-ins: WHEW.
I finally got my tickets and sauntered my way into salvation, going through one last formal rounds of security screening before boarding my flight to Vienna.
What a day.
After landing in Vienna and having a 14 hour layover here before my flight home to NYC, I was welcomed back by my local friend Daniela (who joined us last month on our Central Europe monsoon) once again at Duzi’s Shisha and Cocktail Bar. Hard to imagine we were both just exactly here only 6 weeks ago.
And hours later, I met up with Mariana from Brazil, whom I had befriended 9 months ago when we met back at a hostel in Belgrade and recently went on an adventure of her own to Kabul, Afghanistan.
There was a lot to catch up on.
- At time of posting in Mosul, Iraq, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 57% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny