Analysis

When Torturing Is the Only Way for a Journalist to Stay Alive in Mosul

Worldwide revulsion over images emerging from the city of Mosul will not put an end to the atrocities being committed by Iraqi soldiers liberating the city

An Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) patrol in west Mosul's al-Saha neighbourhood, May 29, 2017.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP

What is a journalist embedded with the Iraqi forces liberating Mosul supposed to do when soldiers tell him to participate in a violent interrogation? How is he supposed to respond when he sees that the troops are allowing him to take pictures of them committing torture or rape or executing civilians?

Ali Arkady, an Iraqi photojournalist for the German news-magazine Der Spiegel, understood that if he wanted to stay alive, he would have to obey the orders of the commander of Iraq’s Emergency Response Division in Mosul and join in with the interrogation.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, he recounted how he was forced to slap one of those being interrogated on the back of the neck and another in the face. The threatening look directed his way by the army commander left him no alternative. He either had to do it or be killed himself.

Arkady complied, but he didn’t leave it there. Over the weekend, the whole world witnessed the shocking video footage he took in which detainees are seen hanging by their feet while an interrogator pokes his fingers into his captives’ eyes.

The Iraqi government was quick to announce it was opening an investigation, and the acts captured on video were condemned by a large number of human rights organizations.

But that probably won’t stop the Iraqi special forces from committing their atrocities on the civilian population of Mosul, the eastern section of which was liberated several weeks ago. The forces are now preparing for the major battle for the western half of the city.

Torture, it should be noted, received the blessing of U.S. President Donald Trump when in January he spoke favorably about waterboarding (in which interrogation subjects are drenched with water and feel they are drowning, until they lose consciousness). Trump told ABC News, “I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” adding a proviso that he would rely on his advisers’ guidance.

The Iraqi soldiers, of course, don’t need Trump’s approval to torture their prisoners – but he certainly hasn’t dissuaded them. Arkady is an extraordinary photographer. When he was a child, his Kurdish family was forced to flee their home in Khanaqin (7 kilometers, or 4.3 miles, from the eastern border of Iraq) to escape the forces of then-President Saddam Hussein. Even then he was attracted to art and photography, and ultimately decided to teach himself photography online, becoming a professional photographer whose work has appeared in newspapers worldwide.

A member of the Iraqi Federal Police walking over debris at the frontline in western Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2017.
ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/REUTERS

On his website, aliarkady.net, he posts his photographs from the war in Iraq, work that has earned him international awards. His images reflect a great deal of human sensitivity and present the horrors of the war from original vantage points.

After his images of the torture were published, the Iraqi special forces decided to file a complaint against Arkady for theft of photographic equipment, along with a threat to file a request with Interpol for his extradition.

Arakady’s photos are just part of the harsh situation being reported in the coverage of what is deemed “the great Iraqi victory over the Islamic State.” More and more reports of abuse and harassment of civilians in Mosul have emerged from eyewitnesses recounting the undisciplined behavior of forces liberating the city.

At the many roadblocks set up in the city and on the road from the city to Baghdad, soldiers are stopping civilians seeking to return to their wrecked homes. The soldiers have lists of suspects, and civilians are required to undergo interrogation at the roadblocks in order to show they are not affiliated with Islamic State. The interrogations are accompanied by physical assaults and looting.

At this point, only 8,000 displaced persons have returned to eastern Mosul. Over 200,000 people have fled the western part of the city, where fighting has been raging between Iraqi forces and ISIS. United Nations convoys have found it nearly impossible to reach them.

The people have been living in tents, deprived of even basic services, waiting for the moment when they can return home but uncertain if they will find their homes still standing.

The rehabilitation of the liberated areas is a saga in itself, as residents of the city of Ramadi, southern Anbar province – which was liberated from ISIS in December 2015 – can confirm. A year and a half on, the residents are still having difficulty returning to normality. The government has begun reconstruction work and been offering interest-free loans to residents whose homes were destroyed. But in most cases, they lack official documents or their homes were built with the verbal consent of the land owner, meaning they do not appear on the government’s land records.

Even in cases in which they have the documentation and can obtain a loan, the $350 monthly repayments are much more than they can afford. Iraqi government officials estimate it will take billions of dollars to rebuild the country’s water and electricity systems, and to repair streets that have been destroyed by roadside explosions.

Despite the victory, the fighting against Islamic State in Anbar province is still not over, being concentrated along the long Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian frontier. ISIS forces are taking advantage of the Iraqi army’s focus on the fighting in Mosul – which has resulted in the presence of fewer forces elsewhere – to continue to fortify themselves in towns and villages along the border.

The Iraqi army has dispatched reinforcements to the country’s western border, but with 200 to 300 kilometers separating one city from the next, it’s almost impossible to prevent the free movement of ISIS forces between Iraq and Syria.