Jeremy Bowen: deadly Western air strikes risk creating the impression that Sunnis in Iraq are being carelessly slaughtered

In a complicated fight in a densely populated city such as Mosul, civilians will die. But under international humanitarian law, belligerents must do all they can to protect them. 

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One woman sticks in my mind. Her name was Muna Fathi, and she had just crossed the front line in Mosul. Now she was waiting to be taken to a camp for the displaced in government-controlled territory. A woman saw me talking to other people and came over. With her was Muna, small, fiftysomething, wearing a headscarf like all the other women there.

“This lady has a major tragedy, in New Mosul,” her friend explained. Nine members of her immediate family, she said, had been killed in the air strike on 17 March – which killed at least a hundred others, most likely more. The US-led coalition has admitted that it was “probably” responsible, and it is investigating. The friend did more explaining. “They were burned, burned. A plane hit them . . . The security forces helped us, told us the places to go, but the air strikes are arbitrary. Lots of civilians are victims.

“We’re calling on human rights organisations to help, because so many people are under the rubble, suffering. Some of them are alive and some are dead. The area of New Mosul is totally devastated.”

Then Muna spoke. “It’s not just devastated,” she said. “It’s a black zone. It is totally gone. More than 500 people are buried under the rubble.” Five hundred was a much higher number than what other people who had fled had told me. I guessed that Muna and her friend had inflated the numbers in their shock.

The stress of war and death affects people in unexpected ways. Across town from where I met Muna, I saw a beaming father standing with his young children no more than a few hundred yards from the fighting. He was euphoric, as if being liberated from the jihadists had stripped away his sense of danger and his instinct to protect his children. He stood proudly with them; they didn’t look as if they were enjoying the spectacle much. Armoured Iraqi Humvees from the national rapid reaction force – interior ministry troops – roared up and down their road. Bullets coming from the Isis side passed overhead with their threatening, sinister, insect-like buzz. The father, whose name was Yasser Mohammad Ahmad, had shining eyes and the wide smile of a man who had convinced himself that the danger had gone and he had become bulletproof.

“It’s all thanks to God,” he said. “We are not afraid of the bombing. As long as we get rid of those people, we’re thankful.”

Muna Fathi, her friend and the other women I spoke to, close to where they had escaped from Isis, felt differently. They had seen the overwhelming effect of the firepower of the US-led coalition, which includes UK forces. The men had been separated from their families, taken away in buses and lorries to be interrogated by Iraqi intelligence to see if they were jihadist sympathisers, or had useful information about their movements. The women were left with the children to be taken further away from Mosul’s firing line to camps for the displaced. These are filling up rapidly, and big new ones have been prepared, standing empty until they are needed, with white tents, latrine blocks and water tanks.

Muna Fathi told the rest of her story. Her face flitted between sadness and anger. She made it clear that she didn’t like Da’esh, as she called the jihadists, using the pejorative Arabic acronym, and that she was running from the air strikes, not the jihadists. “This is not about Da’esh. It’s about the planes. Most important now are our kids. They’re under the rubble. We need to get them out.”

She explained how the jihadists had forced themselves into homes and on to the roofs of buildings, which they use as firing positions. Without doubt they are using civilians as human shields. But that, Muna said, was no reason to bomb the civilians. “There may be one or two Da’esh inside the houses, and [the planes] destroy the houses, so they’re like cemeteries. We’re bringing [people] out burned. We can’t recognise them. Nine of mine have been killed.”

Exasperated and beyond tears, Muna questioned why the air force had to use “two tonnes” of bombs against one or two snipers. “Two of my grandchildren are dead, and my brother,” she told me. “All my grandchildren were going to school, but we couldn’t educate them any more after Da’esh came in. The boy wasn’t allowed by Da’esh to go to the mosque. So he used to pray at home. The stones fell on him. His mother suffered a broken leg. The force of the rocket blew his sister away. She hit her head and she died. She was only four.”

Muna went to sit on a box and tell her story again to sympathetic women, who grouped around her. I noticed a man whose face was covered in sweat, carrying his son on his back. He had walked with the boy like that for over an hour to cross the front line. The boy was about 12 and his ankle was twisted and bandaged. Their lives had been devastated not by air strikes but by a mortar.

“Mortars were falling on homes. Many people died,” the man said. “My sons were walking with someone on the streets and a mortar hit them. One died. The other is here with me on my back, still alive.” The boy seemed sunk in on himself. The man looked as if his tears could wait until he could get his family out. He was straining every sinew of his body and using every ounce of his will to save the survivors in his family.

War is brutal. In a complicated fight in a densely populated city such as Mosul, civilians will die. But under international humanitarian law, belligerents must do all they can to protect them. It is clear that the jihadists are not doing so. The Iraqis and the US-led coalition need to do better, not just for legal or moral reasons. Politics dictates restraint. If Iraqis come to regard the war in Mosul not as force legitimately used but as the careless slaughter of Sunnis, Iraq will have no chance of stability and peace.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent. He tweets: @BowenBBC

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue