NEW YORK — Up on a hill in the liberated part of Mosul are visible traces of extreme ISIS war crimes. A cage is set up in front of a public terrace.
– People were burned alive here, says Adnan Tahar, 42.
Texts have to be written, and testimony must be reproduced, even if it drains your soul. As the terror group ISIS withdraws from previously occupied lands, traces of the most extreme crimes are unearthed. We are not entitled to look away from them. War crimes, however disgusting they might be, must never be forgotten.
During the two and a half years that Mosul was controlled by ISIS, information spread about hundreds of executions in the streets and dead bodies hung from the trees for days and weeks.
After reporting from the fierce fighting on the western side, we decide to travel across the Tigris River to the east side, which was liberated in February. We ask noncombatants for a way forward among civilians who lived here during the ISIS, hoping to find someone who can point out places and testify about the horrible crimes. We have no success whatsoever. People are wary, cautious, and suspicious.
Had it not been for the enormous devastation, destroyed houses and collapsed bridges, one could perhaps have thought that a disaster had never taken place here.
We stop for tea on a noisy street near the bullet-riddled University when a man named Adnan Tahar sits down close to us. His clothes are hanging on the body, his cheeks scream malnutrition, and his face is furrowed. He is 42 years old but looks twenty years older.
– Follow me, and I will show you everything, he says.
The first intersection is located only a hundred yards away. A lamppost, full of bullet holes. According to Adnan Tahar, ISIS soldiers brought captures here every five days. They were chained to the posts and shot in the head.
– Afterward, the bodies hanged for a few days. The goal for ISIS was always maximum exposure for as many people as possible.
A short distance away, outside one of the most frequented markets, a bedplate for a statue of the former leader Saddam Hussein was being towed away. Black spots. Dried blood.
Ten, fifteen or twenty victims could be shot to death in one round, according to Adnan Tahar. Most had been convicted in the ISIS court for espionage and cooperation with the government.
– I know exactly what happened because I was right here, says Adnan Tahar.
We pass the newly opened restaurants, and shops, small signs of hope, until Adnan Tahar again ask us to stop. A small field is squeezed in between the buildings. In the middle a large pit.
Adnan takes a breath and swallows. Five months ago there was a woman accused of being a prostitute, who was thrown into the pit. Thirty men with white stones waited for her. They read out the verdict: If she managed to get up, she would be free. But according to Adnan Tahar, who witnessed the barbaric execution, she was matchless.
– After five minutes the woman was dead. I was there, and for as long as I live, I will never forget her screams, he says.
Can atrocities get any worse? Can they possibly be more inhumane, and more terrifying? Adnan Tahar leads us forward, to a new place for us to see. But it is a long walk. We wander through neighborhoods that slowly begin to come back to life again.
The atmosphere is cautious. Suspicious. New perspectives are in place, where everyone is scrutinizing each other. Who is the woman in the hijab? Why has that man not shaved off his beard?
Everyone wonders who collaborated with IS were accomplices or collaborators. My thoughts go to Germany after the fall of Nazism.
We are slowing in. The last place lies on a hill, overlooking all of Mosul.
On one side of the trail, there is a grandstand with room for hundreds of spectators. The second is a simple rusty cage, a few yards long in all directions.
The way into the cage goes through a door. The padlock is still in place. The prisoners were transferred in here, blindfolded and handcuffed. Some were shot dead. Others were sentenced to be burned to death.
Adnan Tahar knows this all too well, for he saw it with his own eyes. One afternoon in March last year, he cannot remember the exact date, two captured Kurdish soldiers were taken here. They were handcuffed and blindfolded and led into the cage to meet the most horrific fate.
– All I could think was that they could have been brothers.
He goes up on the empty terrace. Thinking of the crowd that was here that afternoon. How they clapped their hands and cheered.
And how he probably did the same thing himself, although his instincts were to vomit.
Did ISIS force him to witness every single execution?
– I do not know … I just wanted to survive, he says.
When ISIS took control of Mosul, he and his family felt hopeful. The terrorist group was distributing money, and no one was missing the country’s corrupt government. Changes came quickly. Neighbors, who were Kurds and Shiite Muslims, were driven away. Some sold as slaves. Cigarettes were banned, women were forced to wear burqas and men beard.
– More and more, we started to realize how bad it was. But by then it was too late.
He thinks of his two children, Sarah, 8, and Ahmed, 10, who were held outside the school, trapped in the home as prisoners in two and a half years.
– All we could do, as the bombs fell, was to cry with our children.
Adnan Tahar is a construction worker but has not had a job in two years. A short distance away lies the shattered remains of Mosul’s landmark, the Prophet Yunus mosque. Built in the 14th century on a biblical person’s tomb, the mosque was seen as a symbol of diversity and coexistence that once existed here. ISIS called the temple a place of worship of false prophets.
Can Mosul be rebuilt? Can what has been lost here one day be recovered?
– One day everything will get better, says Adnan Tahar.
At another intersection down the road, he suddenly jumps off and with red eyes tell us to keep going.
There are testimonies that must be presented, however painful they might be. Adnan Tahar said he wants us – and the world – to know.