In war-torn western Mosul, a determined few remain

Updated 4:43 PM EST, Sat March 11, 2017

Story highlights

Streets are strewn with rubble and houses are pocked with bullet holes

Residents complain of life under ISIS

(CNN) —  

Against a background of columns of thick black smoke rising from southern Mosul, two men push a cart down a dusty, rocky track. On the cart sit a woman in a black dress and a baby, next to a pile of hastily packaged bags.

They’re just a few of the people fleeing Mosul as the battle inside the city approaches the end of its third week.

Sitting on another cart, Ghania, an elderly woman, tells me how ISIS fighters had ordered them out of their home in the Mahata neighborhood, near the main railway station.

“We had to go to my sister’s house with mortars and rockets landing around us, and one destroyed our house just after we left,” she said.

Nearby, Mariam, a sprightly woman of a certain age, was chain-smoking. She complained that under ISIS, which forbade smoking, a single cigarette cost 1,000 Iraqi dinars, or more than 80 cents.

“Daesh were nothing but rotten terrorists,” she said, referring to the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

As she lit another cigarette with another, Mariam continued: “They were hypocrites. They took pills, drank alcohol and oppressed people. Then they’d come to you and say ‘Allah says this, Mohammed says that.’”

Empty streets, constant gunfire

Earlier we had ventured inside the city with the Iraqi Federal Police. At the northern edge of the Tayaran neighborhood, we got out of our cars and walked down a series of rubble-strewn streets. Almost every house was pocked with bullet holes, windows shattered.

Almost every car was charred – set on fire by ISIS fighters, residents told us, to obscure the view of planes prowling overhead. Elsewhere we saw twisted chunks of metal and contorted chassis: the remains of suicide car bombs.

“Stop!” one of the policemen shouted. “There’s a sniper down the street. When you cross to the other side, run!”

So one by one, we ran to the other side, walking close to the wall.

But for a handful of federal policemen, the streets were empty, shots ringing out almost constantly.

Overhead, attack helicopters fired missiles and volleys of heavy machine gun fire into the city.

Ali, a 21-year old federal policeman from Baghdad, vowed, “ISIS is finished.” As he said it, machine gun fire rattled down the street.

Key buildings retaken from ISIS in Mosul

“The situation is very good,” said 26-year old Ahmed, also with the federal police. “ISIS has run away. There are no problems in this area.”

Perhaps, but to retrace our steps, once more we had to sprint across the street to avoid the sniper fire.

Determined to stay

Returning to safer ground, we found a street where a few residents had stayed put. White sheets on sticks marked the homes of those who remained.

Um Mohammed, wearing a red headscarf, peered through her opened gate as we walked by.

How did you manage to stay here while the battle raged around you? I asked.

In front of her house, a huge crater with several charred cars indicated the aftermath of an air strike.

“We stayed in our basement for 16 days,” she responded. “For three of those days it was pitch-dark. Our children were terrified, so we gave them medicine to make them and the old folk sleep.”

While she spoke, two large blasts shook the street. She carried on talking without a flinch.

She held her month-old son, Abdallah, in her arms.

“All he had to eat was flour mixed with water,” she recalled.

Exactly two weeks earlier, we had been on the edge of Um Mohamed’s neighborhood, Tayaran, as airstrikes, artillery and mortars pummeled it. At the time I wondered how anyone could survive such a pounding.

Her neighbor, Waadallah, lives alone. A man in his 60s, he had protested to ISIS fighters who had set up a heavy machine gun on the roof of his home.

“They shoved me against a wall and told me to mind my own business. They were Iraqis, from Mosul, but there were others – Russians, Chechens, some looked like Mongols,” he told me.

“I read history, I know who these people are. They’re kufar – infidels – who pretend to be Muslims, but aren’t. They’re barbarians.”

Waadallah also weathered the storm around him by hiding in the basement. He said there has been no running water or electricity in the neighborhood for the past month.

He, like Um Mohamed, insists he will stay in his home despite the hardship, despite the proximity of the battle.

After what they’d been through, all that seemed a mere inconvenience.