For more than 28 hours, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Brice Laine were with Iraqi special forces during their push into ISIS-held Mosul. It was a new phase of the liberation operation – switching from villages and open terrain to a dense city that a well-equipped ISIS is determined to defend.
Their convoy was leading the operation Friday when it came under attack multiple times.
Vehicles were destroyed, soldiers were hurt. Troops and journalists sought shelter in a succession of houses, calling for backup again and again.
Inside the armored vehicles, hiding with families in houses, Arwa Damon kept notes amid the heat of the battle. Here is her account, with occasional strong language. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Friday, 9 a.m.
We are in Samah, in the east of Mosul.
Soldiers are spotting suspected ISIS fighters down side roads.
A frantic radio call: “Yellow car to the right.”
“Another two cars on the right – a Kia and a white one,” spots the soldier next to me. He sees a third car and calls it over the radio. “Three cars, disappeared into the side streets.”
The gunfire is all over the place. It’s nonstop. Our MRAP armored vehicle is filled with the smell of gunfire from all the shooting outside.
Mosul’s bloody streets could quickly derail Iraqi forces
A voice comes over the ISIS radio frequency that the Iraqis are monitoring: “I am surrounded.” We have no idea where he might be.
A bulldozer is with our convoy, heading up the side streets.
Samah is now behind us. Hay al-Ulamaa is ahead of us.
Some voice coming through on the monitored ISIS radio: “Save me, need medical.” The voice is very choppy, frantic.
We’re moving into Kirkukli neighborhood.
The roads are quite narrow. There are some open lots, but the roads the convoy is winding through are narrow with low-hanging electrical cables
Radio call: There is a car bomb in Khadraa neighborhood.
We just emerged onto a large road between two neighborhoods.
The gunfire is much more intense – a lot is outgoing fire. The incoming makes ping sounds as it hits the side of our vehicle.
“Sniper on the right.”
I need to pee.
A bearded man comes out of a house next to where we are stopped and hangs up a white flag.
“Do not allow the civilians to leave,” comes the radio call. “It’s too dangerous for them.”
Gunfire is erupting again. It’s the constant cacophony of war.
From the monitored ISIS radio channel: “Get ready to fire mortars.”
The soldiers radio a warning to the entire unit.
There’s a massive firefight down a street.
We go into the house of the man who hung the flag. It’s actually a rag he tied to a pole.
His family cowers inside.
The man’s daughter, Nour, is 19. She can’t stop crying – afraid of the shooting and that the soldiers will take her father away.
The man gives the soldiers tea and biscuits. Outside, the shooting continues down a main road.
We go out.
Two soldiers drag a body back. It’s a wounded man, an older man. No one knows who he is.
He was driving a yellow taxi toward the troops. They ordered him to stop and then fired.
Brice filmed the whole thing. He had stopped his car, started quickly walking towards us. One soldier shouted for him to stop, another to sit, another to come. Bullets fly. He falls into a ditch. One soldier screams: “Why did you shoot him?”
The driver died shortly after.
The shooting continues.
The old man’s body is wrapped in a pink floral blanket. The medic next to him is cutting and folding bandages.
The soldiers are chatting. Now that there is a break, they are asking us where we are from and if we are married.
Everyone scrambles for the vehicles.
The gunfire just got too intense – grenades thrown into the street right behind us. At least three of them.
Second Lieutenant Wael Saheb-Ali is hurt – a chunk of shrapnel flew across the back of the vehicle, lodging itself above his left eye. Just a minute earlier, he was telling Brice that he was recently engaged and wants to get married and have children as soon as the war is over.
Another jumps into the armored vehicle with some shrapnel to the thigh.
Another explosion just outside the window.
They want to make it across the street, where the shooting is heaviest, to treat the injuries, but we can’t move.
An ISIS radio voice asks for backup.
A captain we are with takes a selfie with us, then yells for a route to be opened up so we can move out.
He scrolls through pictures of his family, shows me a photo of his wife and his six kids. He was born in 1984. He tells me I look 46. For the record, I am 39.
We are about to cross the main road.
We are still in the same spot. Air is thick with that smell of munitions. It sort of sticks in your nose; it’s very distinctive.
It’s gone silent. Somehow that’s creepier than the firefights.
A couple of shots ring out.
We made it across the street, shots pinging off the armored vehicle.
“Did you see them?” the men ask each other.
“Two or three, around 100 meters from us.”
A massive flash of orange.
A massive explosion just as we were stopped.
My ears are ringing.
The door to the vehicle couldn’t come up fast enough.
Everyone is coughing from the dust and dirt kicked up by the blast.
Out the back window I saw a family running, a family with kids.
It was a suicide car bomber, the soldiers said.
I can’t stop thinking about that family. And all the others.
Another massive explosion.
I just saw the aftermath of the first one. A Humvee behind us is immobile. Soldiers are running for cover. One helping another who must be wounded.
Our communications are down.
“We are in a bad place,” the driver says.
That is not what anyone wants to hear.
Something just went off in front of us.
Now we can hear the hiss of incoming fire.
Radio communications are back up.
“There are no aircraft. We are under heavy fire,” the captain says into the radio. “Mortars, grenades, suicide bomber.”
Our tire is shot out … we hear the hiss of the air going out.
We are trapped. All we can do is watch the street corners for car bombs. Wait for rockets, mortars, missiles.
They need to evacuate the wounded, but they can’t.
Radio calls are getting a bit frantic.
The battalion commander may have been wounded.
The Humvee a couple of vehicles down is on fire. The blaze is massive. There are small explosions coming from it.
We don’t know what caused the explosions. We’re told that the soldiers inside managed to get out of it before it exploded.
Two Humvees are moving up.
A commander is on the radio, trying to bolster morale.
“You liberated all of Iraq. A burning Humvee – this should drive you forward. You are special forces. You are the heroes of Iraq. You freed all of Iraq. The entire world is watching you.”
A motorcycle just came at the convoy. Soldiers fired. Brice sees it happening, the driver, in his mid-40s, long beard and traditional “Afghan” clothing, jumps from his moving bike and runs away. His bike is now lying on its side. The soldiers fear it is loaded with explosives, but it does not blow up.
Holy shit. That is the craziest crap I have seen. A white car just went flying down the side street in front of us. Right between the battalion. Then a rocket-propelled grenade came flying in.
They keep calling for air power.
This fight is nothing like that of the outskirts. This is in the side streets against an enemy that knows them and rules the rooftops. The rooftops of homes that have civilians inside.
“There is heavy incoming, heavy incoming,” the captain calls on the radio. “We need air power now! We are getting hit from all sides.”
We just took a direct hit. I don’t know what it was.
My ears are ringing. Brice has a small wound on the side of his head.
The captain has a head wound. One of the guys is hit in his shoulder.
I have blood on me, but it’s not mine.
We are in a civilian house, crowded into a room with the family that lives here.
The mother and five children are all huddled into a corner, almost as if they are trying to make themselves as small as possible.
The guys we are with are here, too. They don’t have vehicles to evacuate – all their vehicles were ruined, there are only three left that are mobile.
That was an airstrike, or so they said.
There are two families here – two neighbors. The women and six kids are all crammed behind the dresser.
The family we are with made fried eggs and bread for everyone. Even in the worst of times people who have nothing will give everything. The jets are buzzing overhead now.
Radio call: “The jets are overhead. It’s almost over. They are almost finished in your area.”
Crazy outgoing fire again. I think backup may have finally arrived.
“Is that my vehicle on fire?” a soldier walks in and asks.
There is gunfire everywhere again. One of the soldiers says ISIS is filming the burning vehicles. “How do you know?” I ask. There is a tall building, I am sure they are. They did this before, he says.
They started to move the wounded, but there is too much incoming fire.
“Are you leaving with the wounded?” I’m asked.
Brice notes that it will be dark in an hour and a half. The blood has dried on his face.
There is no backup yet.
Time is going by very slowly. Explosions are shaking this house.
It’s the counterterrorism guys. Or so they tell each other. The commander is here somewhere on this block.
The backup unit is 100 meters away, they say, but can’t get here. “We don’t even have vehicles to withdraw,” one says.
A radio call about an attack from the rear. And fire from the right and left.
There are still a lot of explosions. Some so powerful they are shaking the house. The kids are screaming.
A soldier, himself just shot in the leg, came to clean up Brice. And then there was another explosion. And more wounded came in.
They have a plan. They need to clear a couple of blocks to reach another of the units.
“We have no other choice. We are surrounded.”
We have been moved to another house, maybe 10 meters down the road. We had to jump into a Humvee. The guys are really looking out for us.
We are now with the wounded in what feels like the last house standing. The entire road outside is littered with the wreckage of the convoy. Broken down and burnt-out vehicles. The gunfire is endless.
There is another family here in the room next door.
No one was under any illusion that the battle for Mosul was going to be easy or simple, but I think the ferocity of it is really driving home how tough this fight is going to be. Faces are somber.
The men around us are all moaning in pain.
“We should have split up and taken three or four roads, not all come down one. We should have secured the homes,” says Lt. Ahmed, who treated Brice. It turns out he’s not a medic but he’s been helping everyone.
We are sitting on a rickety, white metal swing. The sun has gone down and we can see the sliver of a crescent moon.
They have moved some of the wounded to the entrance – maybe help or transport is on the way. They have 20 or more wounded, Ahmed says. One dead.
They are moving the wounded. I think to up the street a little. And they said the major took two Humvees to get the Diyala battalion. Their communications are down. Our Thuraya satellite phone died hours ago.
The walking wounded are trading stories. About how groups of ISIS fighters, each with three to four men, are hiding in homes. Even homes with civilians in them.
The commander comes in and tells the walking wounded they need to swap guard duty.
“Is backup coming or is it a lie?” one soldier demands to know.
We just drove the gauntlet in a Humvee with the wounded and one body. We arrived at another house with the wounded.
It’s quiet back here. The family whose home it is has kind gentle faces. I am calling the matriarch Umm Abdullah – she doesn’t want her identity disclosed, and the family doesn’t want to be filmed. They are still scared ISIS might come back.
We talk and laugh. We tell random stories. About how schools are closed so the boys haven’t been to university but their mom still wants them to marry. About how the family hid their satellite dish from ISIS. About how the husband looks so much better clean shaven and wondering when ISIS will be guaranteed gone so he can get the beard off.
The family feeds everyone even though they have so little. We talk about favorite foods, giggling over different accents and pronunciations.
They have that dark but utterly charming Iraqi humor.
“Come, I will cradle you to sleep,” Umm Abdullah says. “But I am too fat! I might roll on you and squish you!” Her daughter-in-law models the head-covering ISIS would make them wear. Then she asks why my hair isn’t white yet. Her hair is, and she’s 46. We joke it’s the ISIS effect.
It’s going off again outside. This is supposed to the backup coming.
“We are fucked,” a soldier says on the phone. “We have been besieged for 10 hours. We have 20 wounded, we have no vehicles left.”
Brice asks if it’s worth filming. He’s sleepy and in pain.
Mosul: Iraqi-led forces push into key city
“God give them strength,” the mom, Umm Abdullah, says. “It’s only 11. We still have a full night of this?”
This family has nothing left. They sold their gold and car to make money. Why didn’t you leave, I ask. The father worked at the electrical company. It was a good salary but then the salary stopped. By then it was too late.
The kids don’t flinch or cry. Everyone quickly falls back asleep.
Saturday, 8:11 a.m.
There is still no backup.
We keep being told that it’s coming. The soldiers are hearing the same thing but everyone’s reaction is similar. “Yeah, yeah, they said that 20 hours ago.”
The guys are all talking. “The men only have two magazines left, and they are one or two houses away from us.” Then they saw a group of 10 moving across the rooftops.
“This is nothing,” says a soldier. He’s 25. “We might spend three or four months like this.”
They cleared some roads and then blocked them with the bulldozer, one man says. But overnight, ISIS removed the blockade. He laughs, wincing at the pain in his side – he has two gunshot wounds, he says.
Suicide car bombs are spotted coming. It’s gone mad outside.
The mom of the family is crying. “We aren’t going to survive. We need to get out of here. Even if three or four of us die, the rest will survive.”
A machine gun is going off.
“Save the rounds, save the rounds,” someone says.
Umm Abdullah is praying under her breath.
Explosions shake the house.
Umm Abdullah, who had stayed inside, not wanting to show the troops her face, now heads out to beg them for help.
“Don’t worry, no one will get to you, we are here,” she’s told. We want to believe him. We – us, the family, even the soldiers – all want to believe him.
Time is crawling again. The family is crying, hiding under the stairs. They are begging to go to their neighbors. But each time they try to make a run for it, the fighting is too intense.
The kids are crying. They don’t want to die.
Three sand-colored Humvees are circling. The soldiers say they are not theirs; they are suicide bombs. A strike hits something massive. One of the Humvees in front of the house is hit.
More frantic calls telling commanders they are going to die, they are going to run out of ammunition. Anyone who can fight go to the roof, anyone who can fire – to the roof.
A grenade or a mortar lands in the courtyard outside. More people are wounded.
The guys want airstrikes. One soldier is angry.
“ISIS uses the white flag and hides its fighters and they attack us. It happened twice yesterday.”
The guys are laughing again. Backup is here, finally, 22 hours later.
Down one of the streets, they saw Iraqi counterterrorism vehicles, but they need to circle around.
It was the walking wounded who held this position – them and the handful of soldiers who survived unscathed.
“This is nothing,” Lt. Ahmed says. “In Baiji refinery we were like this for four months. They were air-dropping supplies.”
He has an able air about him that gives confidence to the men. He is calming and confident. Shot in the leg but still fighting.
And then it kicks off again.
The family is hiding in the small bathroom. The whoosh of a coalition airstrike. There have been a couple of those, followed by brief moments of silence that are almost more unnerving than the fighting. And then some more firing.
A couple more airstrikes. They have a whoosh that sucks the air out before impact.
One just took out the house behind this one – the house that the ISIS guy was firing from. It’s a flattened pancake. They say it was empty of civilians.
We find out there were eight ISIS fighters in it.
The family left. Umm Abdullah was angry. Scared angry. The kind of angry you get at life but you don’t know who to direct it to.
They ran out quickly. I wanted to hug Umm Abdullah, but she didn’t even glance in my direction. They ran out without their shoes.
The soldiers on the roof are blowing through their ammunition. There are ISIS fighters two blocks over. It just doesn’t end. The airstrikes are coming in.
These guys are all veterans of the battle to take the Baiji refinery. “This is nothing,” they say, starting to tell stories. “We had viewing holes in the wall and once a guy went to look through it and an ISIS eyeball was staring at him.”
Relief is coming. The units are getting closer.
We are out. We are so fortunate. All we can think of are the families, those kids, the fear on their faces. The soldiers who are still fighting, the knowledge that it will only get worse.