MOSUL, IRAQ - “When birds fly away from the building, that’s when we know Islamic State militants are on the roof,” says Iraqi Army Captain Raad Qasim, explaining why one of his soldiers was shooting a machine gun off the roof we were crouched on, behind a cement wall.
Another soldier pulls the plug out of a hand grenade, and chucks it across the street at the suspect house. IS on a rooftop could mean they were planning to attack, but we will never know if or what that failed plan was.
Through the hole where the machine-gun fires, an IS militant can be seen dead on the ground, but it’s not a fresh body.
The soldiers answer with bravado when asked if they are afraid militants will throw their own grenades back.
“Our enemies are cowards,” says the captain. “They are afraid of us.”
Only a block away, families mill on the streets, and children play football and hang from their knees off an old truck grate. They know the soldiers by name, and don’t seem to notice the constant pounding of gunfire, mortars and airstrikes ringing through the air.
Smoke from an on going battle rises out of the buildings about 600 meters away and IS prayers can be heard from a nearby mosque. They are similar to usual prayers, but include threats to Iraqi Army and Peshmerga forces.
“We are scared, but we are used to it a little,” says Fahel, 12, on his way to find food for his family cow. With the Iraqi Army in charge, adds Ahmed, also 12, they are allowed to play outside more often than under IS rule.
“Just wait for us to move forward,” replies the captain, “And you can play as much as you want.”
Fleeing and returning
A little farther into the Mosul suburbs, some families can be seen racing from building to building to keep covered from bullets, others wander the streets comfortably, apparently unphased by the noise.
Past an emergency medical outpost, some families gather near army trucks, loading themselves and the few things they brought with them in for transport to refugee camps.
A family of five, four women and one young man, race the other way, in the direction of central Mosul. The women are all wearing black IS-required clothing, but with veils flipped back revealing their faces. One woman returns the veil to her face as she rushes down the dusty road.
“We escaped through mortar fire and bullets flying everywhere,” says Naidra. “But we left a family member behind, so we are going back.”
The young man asks that no pictures of them be taken as they head back into IS controlled Mosul. “How long do you think the Iraqi Army will take to free all of Mosul?” asks another women before racing off though the dusty city outskirts.
The families on the frontlines are the ones that remained under IS rule for two and a half years.
Tucked up next to an Army base and former IS Emir home about a few blocks away from the current battle, one family says they never considered leaving, despite what they call the most terrifying times of their lives.
“A few days before the Iraqi Army came here, militants went house to house,” explains Adla, a mother of two teenage girls. “They threatened to behead anyone who had a working mobile phone.”
Phones were forbidden under IS rule, she says, and the militants were increasingly nervous residents were giving information to the Iraqi Army.
Despite the fear, Adla tells VOA she staged her own small revolution under IS, refusing to cover her face and dressing in a headscarf and loose gown.
“Every place I’ve been, hospitals, shops, they told me to put on the veil,” she says. “But I argued with them all the time.” Her knowledge of the Islamic Holy Book, she argues, was always greater than the militants, who were often uneducated.
“I’m not afraid of them,” she says. “They are only Islamic in name.”