Lithuanian journalist treads ISIS booby traps-filled Mosul grounds.
What got you going to the war zone in Iraq?
There were quite a few reasons why we decided to go to Iraq. I see it as a follow-up to our series on reporting about the refugee crisis last year. We followed the migrants who had embarked on a desperate journey from the Syrian border to a German camp in Passau. Back then I felt so sorry for most of them. For those who have lost everything --their home, work, and even their loved ones. But I was taken aback by the attitude towards our reporting in Lithuania. Most of the readers could not comprehend why these people were coming to Europe. Why they could not stay in the neighbouring countries, they asked. Are they really running from something that horrific? We went to Lebanon to show that migrants are being really abused in other Middle Eastern countries. And in order to show the war and terror that people are suffering, we were compelled to go on the ground to Syria or Iraq. Since there is a safe-haven in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, my colleague Lukas Balandis and I signed up for the trip.
Talk a little about your travels, please. What were the arrangements you made? Did the Iraqi border guards get suspicious seeing your Lithuanian passport?
Before even telling my editors at 15min.lt about the endeavour, I sought to sort out all the logistics first. Just to be sure that we could pull it off. So, one of the first things I had to find out was how hard it is to get into Iraq. I asked about that some local contacts. All of them confirmed that for any EU citizen there's visa-free entry for up to two weeks. But there was conflicting information online. And probably the most reliable source, which was the Lithuanian MFA's site, was saying that Lithuanians do need visas to get into Iraq. So, it took a lot of persuasion to calm everyone down that the information online is either wrong or outdated. Personally, I put my trust in the locals. And they did not let me down.
However, at the border, it was obvious the Iraqi custom officer got interested in my passport. He was scratching, bending and pulling it only to make sure that it was not a fake one. Probably, it was his first time seeing a Lithuanian passport.
Has your mum approved the venture? What was her advice? Did you seek any advice from the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign affairs before setting out?
Actually, when I told my parents that I was going to Iraq I was really surprised how cool they were about it. I guess it helped that I had told them before about my idea. I explained to them that I would not like to go there for action, but rather for the people who had been through an ISIS ordeal. They saw how important it was for me.
Why did you focus on the Iraqi city of Mosul in the trip? What impressions have you gotten of the country and the city?
Besides being the second largest Iraqi city, Mosul has symbolic importance. When gangs of jihadis took over the city in 2014, the loss demoralised the whole country. Not only because it took everyone by surprise, especially that the Iraqi forces had not put up a fight.
This time, it has been a different story Coalition forces claimed they had amassed 100,000 soldiers for the Mosul battle, whereas, reportedly, only around 7,000 jihadis were holding onto the city before the attack. For ISIS, Mosul is the biggest city they were in control of as of mid-November and it was one of their few remaining strongholds. Against that backdrop, we could not allow ourselves to miss the biggest battle against ISIS.
Who took care of you on the ground? What were instructions and warnings you had received?
Like any foreign media organisation, we had a local arranger. It was somebody who dealt with permissions and got us to places of interest. From time to time, he checked the security situation in the area through his contacts. I guess this helped with our stress. Also, the military personnel briefly instructed us about the booby traps and explosives that are buried under the rubble. If they were not sure whether there might be any explosives inside a liberated house, they would escort us. The locals took really good care of us.
Can you talk a little about the scope of destruction in Mosul that you saw?
The outskirts of Mosul have become a spooky place. Both the jihadis and Iraqi forces are behind that. Especially the jihadis, who hid explosives in the houses and made them too dangerous. We met one family in Qabarli though. Regardless of military warnings, they were checking out what was left of their home. The soldiers told us that ISIS had made their house into a bomb-maker's shop. They knew that there were explosives under the rubble, but they, out of love for their homeland, did not care about the warnings too much.
How do the locals see ISIS? I am pretty sure there're ISIS supporters within the population ...
Most of the people that actually have encountered ISIS jihadis themselves see them as a criminal group. The Iraqis that we met in an IDP camp told stories about their hypocrisy. I think it is well-illustrated by a scheme that jihadis had in Mosul. According to their perverse rules, smoking is a sin and therefore is prohibited in the so-called "Islamic state." Breaking this rule entailed severe consequences--some whip lashes and a fine. But a guy who worked at a local shop told us that it was ISIS that flooded the black market with cigarettes. Let alone the fact that the jihadis were smoking in public themselves, without any consequences.
Media reports claim the military force attempting to take back Mosul consists of a very mottled ethnical background. Did you sense any rivalry between the troops? Who coordinates the offense?
Yes, different factions of the coalition forces have different agendas, so, naturally, their relations are tense. The offense is led by the Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi. On the ground in Mosul there are only Iraqi Special Operation Forces units, some of which are coordinated by the American military instructors. Normally, they come from some special operation units in one branch or another of the military. And all of them agree that for now the biggest threat to Iraq is ISIS. So, we have not witnessed anything that would suggest a possible confrontation.
Did you happen to see, or even talk, to captured ISIS fighters? How was the experience?
No. The fighters only showed a dead body of a foreign jihadi. They left it away to rot only after inspecting it carefully. For example, anything personal he had on himself could help Iraqi intelligence. For instance, as soon as the jihadi's identity is known they can check whether he's linked to anyone. So this helps them to expose the whole network of jihadis. And it was lying in the sun for weeks, so, it was not pleasant, but it's a war zone.
Talk a bit about the on-spot logistics, please. How do the Iraqi-led troops get around, are provided with provisions, pharmaceuticals, etc? Are there any makeshift washrooms?
The road to Mosul from Erbil is completely secured by the Iraqi forces. So, it became the main supply route for the ones fighting in the streets of Mosul. They get around by Humvees and everything else is transported by military trucks. I have not seen any makeshift washrooms, but some of the soldiers and officers are even staying at the hotels in Erbil since Mosul is only an hour-long drive away.
How did you take your notes? On your e-notebook? Scribbling down everything in an old-fashioned way on paper?
I was recording the conversations and taking notes on my phone.
Were you under attack by ISIS while on the mission? Were you scared?
We never got into situations where we were shot at, but we did not fool ourselves. The number of weapons, landmines, explosive devices, and the destruction following everywhere we went reminded us that we were in a combat zone. Any mistake or a misunderstanding might have turned out very unpleasantly. And I was never scared. Probably, that was the adrenalin working.
But there was one time when I thought, oh , damn it, that's it ... It happened when we were walking among the rubble in a small town on the Mosul road. And I saw a device that looked exactly like an improvised explosive device (IED) that Peshmerga fighters had shown us moments before. I pointed it out to the soldier and he did something they advised us to never do--he grabbed the device. The moment it was clear that he was going for it, instinctively, I turned around and held my breath as if bracing for the explosion. But nothing happened. Later I found out that my colleague also had a moment like this. We laughed about it, but this was damn serious ...
Do you believe life in Mosul will return to normalcy after ISIS is pushed out of the city?
This might sound pessimistic, but I feel that the Iraqis won't see a victory coming. Even if they defeated ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq. There are many reasons why, but I will name just a few. Firstly the Islamic state had wide support from Sunni Muslims. And a really big part of those 1.5 million to 2 million people in Mosul have supported ISIS in one way or another. In Bashiqa we have heard the president of the Kurdistan region saying that they will expose these people. Then, severely punish them. Also, this is one of the reasons why the people from liberated areas are held in camps. So, this sounds like an upcoming period of violence and polarisation. On the other hand, no one doubts that ISIS will set up sleeper cells. Jihadis will keep a low profile, but will remain loyal to "the caliphate." Ironically, this is what the liberated Iraqis told us at the camp in the Khazir region. They are afraid to go back to Mosul because of the possibility of meeting a familiar jihadi in the street. They fear for their own and their family's lives. They have heard what is happening in Baghdad, which is notorious for sectarian assassinations. It seemed to me that really rough times are waiting for all Iraqis. I hope I am wrong.
Has the trip been an eye-opener for you in a way?
It gave me confidence that Lithuanian journalists can also work with difficult international stories. Part of this realisation came to me thanks to our readers. To my own surprise every single story from Iraq was really well-read. It's not the first international story that I have covered. And has always been a challenge to make readers interested in a long piece of journalism about an issue in a place which is so far away from the reader. Like Iraq. But now I see this also depends on our effort. This makes us look for better stories. Basically, it was really motivating.
Excuse my perhaps naive question; the fighters you were mingling with must have asked you where the blondish curls of your hair come from ... How candid were you when hit with personal questions? Did the people know where you came from? ...
(Grins) They immediately spotted us. And they guessed that we were from Europe. British, German, French, or Swedish, but they never said that we looked Lithuanian. But they were really happy to discover Lithuania. We showed where it's located, some pictures, and they loved it. In exchange they opened up to us as well. I always like getting personal with people when I am working on a story. So, that's why it did not bother me at all to tell them about Lithuania. By the way a Christian Orthodox priest in Bashiqa was really touched that journalists from a tiny country in the north of Europe go to report on a war that is tormenting their country. I think he could have spoken on behalf of many Iraqis that we met; they should have felt similarly.
What's next for you, Paulius? I can call you a second Zuokas, former Vilnius mayor, who years back, as a journalism student, travelled to Iraq and then, tapping the sudden prominence, waded into politics ... How are you intending to use the publicity? Any book deal in your pocket?
I am just going to follow wherever the Middle East decides to go. It never ceases to make the headlines and surprise the world. And it's no secret which country in the region needs attention the most, especially from international journalists. It's Syria. So, I would love to go there and cover it. But first we have to find a safe way to do this. That is probably the next challenge. But we could continue our efforts to introduce 360-degree reporting in the Lithuanian press, so it should be worth the effort. And I believe this, in a digital media age, is something more worthwhile than focusing on a book.
P.S. With the interview going to print, international media reported that the Iraqi coalition troops' offence on Mosul has slowed down in recent days.
Caption: A jihadi's car has been destroyed by a coalition strike in Bashiqa
Caption: Fighters are still on a watch at the outskirts of a liberated town
Caption: Inside the underground network of ISIS tunnels
Caption: Liberated Iraqis from Mosul must stay in camps
Caption: Outside the destroyed town of Qabarli
Caption: Paulius Ramanauskas in the liberated town of Bashiqa.JPG
Caption: The camp for internally displaced Iraqis in Khazir region
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|Title Annotation:||WORLD HOT SPOTS|
|Publication:||The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)|
|Date:||Dec 14, 2016|
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