The city of Mosul, though officially retaken by Iraqi forces as of Tuesday, lies in ruins. At the end of nearly nine months of grueling combat, thousands are dead, roughly 900,000 civilians have been displaced and entire neighborhoods are destroyed. The cost of military victory is dear.
For AP photographer Felipe Dana, who has been posted in the northern Iraq city since October, the victory marks the end of the battle but not the war. “If it’s finished today, I don’t think people will just go back and rebuild their lives and everything is going to be fine, it’s not going to be like that,” Dana tells National Geographic. He is concerned not just for the civilians’ rehabilitation, but also about Islamic State beliefs manifesting themselves in other, more insidious ways.
Covering a region as dangerously volatile as this has been a challenge. “First you have to be careful for your own safety because there is no point putting your life at risk,” he says. “But also the access is very difficult. We’re very limited by the military. Many times, even when you’re given access, if their operations are not going as they expected, they will take you out really quick.”
Despite these limitations, Dana has produced a broad, affecting account of the offensive. His focus throughout has largely been on the people, rather than the warfare. Though his images of burned-out cars, billowing clouds of bomb smoke and crumbling buildings are impactful, it is the women fleeing under fire or the children emerging from the rubble that tell the deeper story. “Through the damage in the city is really shocking, I think ultimately it’s all about the people that live in the city,” says Dana. “That’s what interests me most.”
The impact on Mosul’s children is something Dana has frequently returned to. The haunting scene of a young boy riding his bike through the ruins or a girl dressed in pink playing on a swing is a surreal sight in the context of a warzone. Dana says these scenes are surprisingly typical and indicate the ability of children to “easily move on.” But, he adds, there are many moments that they are not going to forget about.
Just two days ago, two cousins appeared at a field hospital where he was shooting. They were starving and screaming uncontrollably, saying their parents were buried under rubble and begging people to go and rescue them. “They were screaming non-stop,” says Dana. “People were giving them biscuits and water because they were starving and thirsty. But they were still screaming even while they were eating and drinking. For these children, I don’t know what their future is going to be like.”
It’s stories like this that show the fall of the Islamic State stronghold was not an “easy” win. “This is a liberation from ISIS and I agree that most of these civilians were extremely unhappy being under their control,” says Dana. “But it was a very, very complicated, long fight that left thousands dead and many children without their parents, many parents without their children. Not everyone has reason to celebrate.”
In the coming months, Dana will focus on the aftermath stories. “I will look at the reconstruction, people going back to their lives, how it is for them after ISIS,” he says. “I will focus on the consequences of the war.”