More than a year after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS), one San Francisco man set his sights on visiting the war-torn city.
The bodies of thousands of civilians and militants can still be found buried underneath the rubble of bombed-out buildings throughout Mosul, where Ding Liu, who calls himself “a normal traveler,” stayed for two days in November.
“We were told that in the summertime, when the temperature goes up 60 degrees to over 100 degrees, from 2016 to 2017, the whole city smells really bad,” the 3D designer told NextShark.
That did not stop Liu from traveling to Iraq’s third largest city.
He was inspired by a Canadian woman he met who visited Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Three weeks later, Liu was on a 12-hour bus ride from Diyarbakir, Turkey to northern Iraq.
“The bus was literally cruising along the Syrian border,” Liu said in a Reddit post. “I prefer travel by land because I can see more this way.”
But what he saw as he ventured along the Tigris River across a bridge linking East and West Mosul were buildings decimated by heavy airstrikes and shelling.
“As you enter the west you see everything is destroyed,” Liu recalled. “There’s just no words to describe the intensity.”
The road to Mosul was paved with problems. Liu was without an Iraqi visa and was barred from entering through the first of many checkpoints. Fortunately, for Liu, he had a fixer named Sardar by his side every step of the way in and out of Mosul. Fixers are locals who guide foreign correspondents through checkpoints at the frontlines of war zones in the Middle East and other places that would be difficult to access, according to VICE.
“The person who took me there used to take the media to Mosul during the war or after it got liberated,” the intrepid traveler said.
Liu isn’t a journalist by any means, but his fixer was willing to find an alternate route into the Iraqi city.
“He had a friend who told him that he would take me through the checkpoint but that guy did not deliver the job, so we had to turn around,” Liu recounted.
On their way to Mosul, Lin and Sardar drove by an ISIS family camp, where the wives, children and elders of suspected affiliates of the militant group have been forced to go following the war.
Liu also took the opportunity to get a few smiles out of troops of the Kurdish Army (Peshmerga) and Iraqi Army (Iraqi Ground Forces).
From there, the duo arrived at their first checkpoint.
“The Kurdish checkpoint was fine, then the Iraqi checkpoint, the militia checkpoint, and the Iraqi police checkpoint,” Liu explained. “When you’re in Mosul, there are more Iraqi checkpoints. So there were at least five or six checkpoints.”
As they crossed the river to West Mosul, Liu and his fixer stopped by a little sandwich stand to grab a quick bite to eat. There, they met Yaseen Eizo, whose 17-year-old brother was killed by an airstrike.
“We met Yaseen and the first thing he said to us is ‘life here is terrible,’” Liu lamented. “He was the first person in Mosul I spoke to and his story really hit me hard.”
After lunch at the sandwich stand, Liu asked Yaseen if locals harbored feelings of disdain and mistrust of Americans.
“No, we don’t hate the people,” Yaseen replied. But, according to him and Liu’s fixer, “75% or more people in West Mosul dislike America.”
“I mean, I would too if my home, my friends, my family got completely destroyed,” Liu said. “It’s pretty easy to understand.”
Two weeks before Liu’s visit, two children reportedly died from playing in the rubble after triggering a leftover bomb or ISIS’s IED. Despite this, Liu describes stepping foot in Mosul as safer than South Los Angeles.
“At that moment, I felt pretty safe. I didn’t feel threatened,” he remembered. “You wouldn’t do stupid things or cross the line.”
Liu did feel slightly uneasy at one point but that was only due to security guards and police brandishing their firearms. He added that the mainstream media has the wrong idea about people in the Middle East.
“They are extremely nice people,” Liu emphasized. “I’ve never been to Iran, but I’ve met a lot of travelers that have been telling me that Iranians have a very warm welcome. Super hospitable. Afghanistan as well. In Iraq, the same thing. Very nice people.”
And he still remains friends with one of those nice people. Liu kept his word to Yaseen that he would spread the message of people needing help to rebuild Mosul so families displaced during the war can return to their homes.
Individuals such as actress and UNHCR Special Envoy for the UN Refugee Agency Angelina Jolie, who visited Iraq in June, and other relief organizations promised to offer assistance, but the families who have survived years of terror have seen very little progress, according to Yaseen.