Finding the family who sheltered us in Mosul

Angry at the ISIS fighters shooting outside, angry at the soldiers hiding in her home, angry at her family’s misfortune, to live in Iraq at a time like this.

And angry with me, for repeatedly telling her that back up units were on their way, though none had arrived.

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Photojournalist Brice Lainé and I had embedded with a unit of Iraqi counter-terrorism troops as they pushed to take streets from ISIS in eastern Mosul. But things had gone badly wrong. Trapped in its maze of narrow, muddy side roads, our convoy was pinned down, our escape route blocked.

After our armored vehicle took a direct hit we dashed from house to house to get away from the encroaching ISIS fighters, eventually ending up in Mattar’s home. There, the family, soldiers and journalists spent one of the most terrifying nights of our lives as explosions rocked the building and a deadly firefight raged outside.

Yet the family had fed us and the soldiers, made us tea, offered us blankets, and all the while Mattar had kept her sense of humor and her dignity.

28 hours in Mosul: Leading the attack, then trapped
Mattar and Arwa laughed and joked together to take their minds off the terrifying situation outside.

Just seven years my senior, Mattar had become my “Mosul mom” in those hours, though she’d joked how unfair it was that I looked so much younger, and had not gone gray.

“Look! This is what being Iraqi does to you,” she said, showing me the roots of her hair.

Then, at dawn, when the firefight erupted again, worse than ever, and an airstrike on the house next door had her family screaming in fear under the stairs, they had fled in panic, barefoot and without looking back, amid a hail of bullets and grenades.

I had not even had a chance to hug her goodbye, to say thank you.

We eventually escaped, went home, enjoyed the luxury of feeling safe, but what had happened to them?

For two months, Brice and I had worried about the soldiers who were with us that day, about the civilians who sheltered us, about Mattar and her family.

We had to go back and find out.

Rescuing Arwa and Brice: My toughest 24 hours

Searching for old friends

We are disoriented at first, we can’t get our bearings. Our memories are of vehicles exploding in a ball of flames, of the burned-out wrecks of others, of mad dashes to safety. Is this the place?

We think we recognize the street, and then the street recognizes us: A man in whose brother’s house we briefly sought refuge in comes over to say hello.

The man, Nawfal, had been so kind, frying eggs for us and the troops as his terrified wife Farah and frightened children cowered in a void behind a flimsy wooden cupboard.

Farah’s hands are shaking again as she grabs mine in greeting. The trauma of this city is beyond comprehension.

Walking onward, up the road towards Mattar’s place, we are anxious, uneasy, hoping they are there, but afraid of what we might find out.

I can’t remember what the house looked like from the outside, can’t work out which one it is, until I spot a familiar — but changed — face: it’s Mattar’s husband, Abu Abdullah, without his big gray beard.

As we gossiped together to pass the time that night months ago, Mattar had giggled that she thought her husband was better looking clean shaven, and how much she was looking forward to the day ISIS was gone, so he could cut off his beard.

“You promised you would come back,” he says. “You are a good girl.”

Mattar's husband Abu Abdullah was barely recognizable without his big gray beard.

I take a deep breath and ask the question we’ve been dreading hearing the answer to: “Is everyone all right? We heard someone had died.” “No,” he assures us, grinning, “Everyone is OK.”

Then all of a sudden, Mattar is there. She barrels into me, crushing my ribs with a hearty “big momma” hug and covering my face with kisses.

“Ayy! I ran to see you,” she says, pulling me to the ground and sobbing. “You came back!”

She’s tired, she says. It’s been a difficult few months, and they haven’t long been back. After they ran out of the house, she tells me, they were stopped by armed ISIS fighters and themselves had to seek shelter in another relative’s house.

Eventually they escaped and made it to Gogjali, a town on the outskirts of Mosul which had already been liberated. They stayed there a month. “We still didn’t have our shoes,” they say.

Now things are looking up; they are home and there’s a new baby in the family.

“You’re not mad?” I ask, worried. No, Mattar insists, she’s not angry, she doesn’t hate us. As if to prove it, she shares wonderful but very unexpected news.

“I named my granddaughter after you, because I love you.” I’m lost for words, enveloped in a bubble of happiness and relief.

The kindness of Iraqis, despite everything they have been through, always stuns me.

Boy orphaned by airstrike

But if the story of Iraq is one of survival of the human spirit, it is also one of deep suffocating sorrow, and moments later, my joy evaporates as Mattar’s neighbour arrives.

“You filmed my son getting shot,” he says.

Abu Yassin's son was shot dead on a rooftop near where Arwa and Brice were sheltering.

Abu Yassin’s son was mistaken for a fighter and killed as he stood on the roof of the family’s home. Brice captured the piercing wail of a woman ringing out as his son’s death was discovered.

And he was not the only civilian killed that day in this war that has no real front lines, no rules.

The airstrike that hit the house next door while we were here killed eight civilians, Abu Yassin says. Only three survived: two teenagers and a little boy, orphaned in the raid.

A relative who’s now caring for the little boy says he hasn’t been able to tell him that his parents and sisters are dead. His voice shakes with emotion as we talk on the phone. But he wants to make one thing clear — he forgives the person who hit the house, saving his anger for ISIS.

“I know that if the pilot, no matter where he is from or his religion, knew that there were two families in the house they would not have taken the strike, or they would have used a smaller rocket,” he says.

Eleven people were sheltering in the house — under the stairs, just like Mattar’s children next door — when a group of ISIS fighters jumped the wall, the man says. The militants climbed up to the roof, tossed a grenade into the yard, and were getting ready to attack the house where we were when the airstrike killed them — and their hostages, who were being held at gunpoint.

These two families lived just 20 feet apart; one survived, one was destroyed.

Iraqis know war. They know the pain of loss. They have lived it for decades. But there is precious little room for joy here, just all-too-fleeting moments of happiness.

Taking western Mosul from ISIS: 5 key questions

Family fled barefoot, in panic

Iraq is a nation known for its tribal ways, its brutality. But it is also a nation whose people are kind and caring — to friends, family, and even complete strangers.

Mattar’s living room that day became both sleeping quarters and makeshift clinic, as wounded soldiers were brought in, and the family shared their meager meals with all of us, keen to maintain the Iraqi hospitality that somehow endures through the worst situations.

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She and I spent hours together, talking, laughing and telling stories, in between my trips to the roof to message Hamdi, our field producer and lifeline, who was desperately trying to get us out of there.

Mattar and her family had every right to resent us, for blundering into their home with a video camera and soldiers and filming them. But they have that kindness and purity that is intrinsic to Iraqis — though it’s a part that outsiders, too used to footage of war and destruction, never see.

There was humor too. As night fell, she had even joked, “come, I will cradle you to sleep,” before adding, eyes twinkling, “but I am too fat! I might roll on you and squish you!”

Then the following morning, after a fraught, restless night, Mattar’s jovial exterior finally cracked, exposing the cold, gut-wrenching terror beneath.

This woman, who just hours earlier had ducked her head, too shy to show the Iraqi soldiers her face, now ran out into the courtyard to shout at them, plead with them, to help her, to save her family.

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= false,callbackObj,containerEl,currentVideoCollection = [],currentVideoCollectionId = ”,isLivePlayer = false,moveToNextTimeout,mutePlayerEnabled = false,nextVideoId = ”,nextVideoUrl = ”,turnOnFlashMessaging = false,videoPinner,videoEndSlateImpl;if (CNN.autoPlayVideoExist === false) {autoStartVideo = false;if (autoStartVideo === true) {if (turnOnFlashMessaging === true) {autoStartVideo = false;containerEl = jQuery(document.getElementById(configObj.markupId));CNN.VideoPlayer.showFlashSlate(containerEl);} else {CNN.autoPlayVideoExist = true;}}}configObj.autostart = autoStartVideo;CNN.VideoPlayer.setPlayerProperties(configObj.markupId, autoStartVideo, isLivePlayer, mutePlayerEnabled);CNN.VideoPlayer.setFirstVideoInCollection(currentVideoCollection, configObj.markupId);videoEndSlateImpl = new CNN.VideoEndSlate(‘body-text_64’);/*** Finds the next video ID and URL in the current collection, if available.* @param currentVideoId The video that is currently playing* @param containerId The parent container Id of the video element*/function findNextVideo(currentVideoId) {var i,vidObj;if (currentVideoId && jQuery.isArray(currentVideoCollection) && currentVideoCollection.length > 0) {for (i = 0; i 0) {videoEndSlateImpl.showEndSlateForContainer();}}}callbackObj = {onPlayerReady: function (containerId) {CNN.VideoPlayer.reportLoadTime(containerId);CNN.VideoPlayer.handleInitialExpandableVideoState(containerId);CNN.VideoPlayer.handleAdOnCVPVisibilityChange(containerId, CNN.pageVis.isDocumentVisible());if (Modernizr && !Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {var containerClassId = ‘#’ + containerId;if (jQuery(containerClassId).parents(‘.js-pg-rail-tall__head’).length) {videoPinner = new CNN.VideoPinner(containerClassId);videoPinner.init();} else {CNN.VideoPlayer.hideThumbnail(containerId);}}},/** Listen to the metadata event which fires right after the ad ends and the actual video playback begins*/onContentEntryLoad: function(containerId, playerId, contentid, isQueue) {CNN.VideoPlayer.showSpinner(containerId);},onContentMetadata: function (containerId, playerId, metadata, contentId, duration, width, height) {var endSlateLen = jQuery(document.getElementById(containerId)).parent().find(‘.js-video__end-slate’).eq(0).length;CNN.VideoSourceUtils.updateSource(containerId, metadata);if (endSlateLen > 0) {videoEndSlateImpl.fetchAndShowRecommendedVideos(metadata);}},onAdPlay: function (containerId, cvpId, token, mode, id, duration, blockId, adType) {clearTimeout(moveToNextTimeout);if (blockId === 0) {(new Image()).src = “http://traffic.outbrain.com/network/trackpxl?advid=814&action=view”;}CNN.VideoPlayer.hideSpinner(containerId);if (Modernizr && !Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !== ‘undefined’ && videoPinner !== null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(true);videoPinner.animateDown();}}},onContentPlay: function (containerId, cvpId, event) {var playerInstance,prevVideoId;/** When the video content starts playing, inject analytics data* for Aspen (if enabled) and the companion ad layout* (if it was set when the ad played) should switch back to* epic ad layout. onContentPlay calls updateCompanionLayout* with the ‘restoreEpicAds’ layout to make this switch*/if (CNN.companion && typeof CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout === ‘function’) {CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout(‘restoreEpicAds’);}clearTimeout(moveToNextTimeout);CNN.VideoPlayer.hideSpinner(containerId);if (CNN.VideoPlayer.getLibraryName(containerId) === ‘fave’) {playerInstance = FAVE.player.getInstance(containerId) || null;} else {playerInstance = containerId && window.cnnVideoManager.getPlayerByContainer(containerId).videoInstance.cvp || null;}prevVideoId = (window.jsmd && window.jsmd.v && (window.jsmd.v.eVar18 || window.jsmd.v.eVar4)) || ”;if (playerInstance && typeof playerInstance.reportAnalytics === ‘function’) {if (prevVideoId.length === 0 && document.referrer && document.referrer.search(//videos//) >= 0) {prevVideoId = document.referrer.replace(/^(?:http|https)://[^/]/videos/(.+.w+)(?:/video/playlists/.*)?$/, ‘/video/$1’);if (prevVideoId === document.referrer) {prevVideoId = ”;}}playerInstance.reportAnalytics(‘videoPageData’, {videoCollection: currentVideoCollectionId,videoBranding: CNN.omniture.branding_content_page,templateType: CNN.omniture.template_type,nextVideo: nextVideoId,previousVideo: prevVideoId,referrerType: ”,referrerUrl: document.referrer});}if (Modernizr && !Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !== ‘undefined’ && videoPinner !== null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(true);videoPinner.animateDown();}}},onContentReplayRequest: function (containerId, cvpId, contentId) {if (Modernizr && !Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !== ‘undefined’ && videoPinner !== null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(true);var $endSlate = jQuery(document.getElementById(containerId)).parent().find(‘.js-video__end-slate’).eq(0);if ($endSlate.length > 0) {$endSlate.removeClass(‘video__end-slate–active’).addClass(‘video__end-slate–inactive’);}}}},onContentBegin: function (containerId, cvpId, contentId) {CNN.VideoPlayer.mutePlayer(containerId);if (CNN.companion && typeof CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout === ‘function’) {CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout(‘removeEpicAds’);}CNN.VideoPlayer.hideSpinner(containerId);clearTimeout(moveToNextTimeout);CNN.VideoSourceUtils.clearSource(containerId);jQuery(document).triggerVideoContentStarted();},onContentComplete: function (containerId, cvpId, contentId) {if (CNN.companion && typeof CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout === ‘function’) {CNN.companion.updateCompanionLayout(‘restoreFreewheel’);}navigateToNextVideo(contentId, containerId);},onContentEnd: function (containerId, cvpId, contentId) {if (Modernizr && !Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !== ‘undefined’ && videoPinner !== null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(false);}}},onCVPVisibilityChange: function (containerId, cvpId, visible) {CNN.VideoPlayer.handleAdOnCVPVisibilityChange(containerId, visible);}};if (typeof configObj.context !== ‘string’ || configObj.context.length 0) {configObj.adsection = window.ssid;}CNN.autoPlayVideoExist = (CNN.autoPlayVideoExist === true) ? true : false;CNN.VideoPlayer.getLibrary(configObj, callbackObj, isLivePlayer);});/* videodemanddust is a default feature of the injector */CNN.INJECTOR.scriptComplete(‘videodemanddust’);

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