After eight months of fighting, Iraqi forces are close to retaking the city of Mosul. Photographer Tommy Trenchard has spent much of the past few months documenting the conflict in his project The Battle for Mosul. His photographs cover the bitter street-fighting in the western half of Mosul, as well as the war’s effect on the city’s residents – over half a million of whom have been displaced since the rise of ISIS in 2014.
The first image in the series shows a girl running through the battle-scarred neighbourhood of Wadi Hajar, in western Mosul. “This photo was taken shortly after the neighbourhood was liberated from ISIS,” says the photographer, who is represented by Panos Pictures and works for a variety of NGOs, international newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Oxfam and MSF. “The area was in a state of flux, with residents returning to their homes even while fighting continued just a few hundred metres away.”
“Mosul was my first experience of covering combat at such close quarters, and some of the scenes were hard to witness,” he adds. “The bodies, which were often in a terrible state, were especially hard. Some of the ISIS fighters were really young, in their mid-teens, and it was difficult not wonder who they were and how they had become caught up in this war.”
One of the photos in the series shows the body of a young ISIS militant killed by an airstrike earlier in the day. “Scenes like that always made me wonder,” he said. “How many of them were true extremists, and how many were just ordinary people, who felt alienated by their government and who joined ISIS in the early days of their rule before the extent of their brutality became apparent”.
The photographer added that many of those living in Mosul initially saw ISIS as a legitimate force standing up to a distant, Shia-dominated government, that had neglected and persecuted residents of the Sunni-majority city ever since the American invasion in 2003. “It’s important to remember that they made a decision that seemed rational to them at that time,” he says.
“There is such hatred between the two sides [now], and a lack of empathy that I think will be a challenge in the post-ISIS era, when the country will have to look towards healing and reconciliation.”