War /

Western Mosul – It is about 7 in the morning when from the window we notice a dark smoke rising. Everyone is asleep on the floor after a night of fighting. Lieutenant Hassan Kazhim Faraj keeps his ear to the radio unaware. “What’s this smoke?” we ask the officer who turns to the spotters on the rooftops. “Daesh (Islamic State A/N) has set fire to the house opposite us. Maybe to avoid being identified by the drones” they reply. A moment later complete mayhem breaks out: hand grenades, incessant gun shots and Rpgs. The Caliph’s followers attack our small Fort Apache, a federal police frontline outpost just steps away from the old city. Everyone jumps to their feet and grabs their weapons, putting on their boots, bullet proof vests and helmets. Major Abd Sajid Raed, commander of the handful of men of the 5th battalion orders the distribution of hand grenades and positioning of mortars. Alarming news reaches us from the four buildings under his contingent’s control. “They are right before us. They are launching grenades. We saw them around the corner.” Following the young officers of the assault we try to reach the bullet-swept roof. It’s impossible to go out and return the fire. A sniper shoots a bullet from a small window at the back which hits the wall just above our heads.

Mortars can’t be used at a such a short distance. For this reason, as well as the possibility that there might still be civilians hiding in the surrounding houses, the major is considering whether he should call for air support. The risk is of them, as well as us, being hit by the artillery.

From the other house under their control the federal police assault troops can see three jihadists launching hand grenades. One is hit and dragged away by his comrades. Only his Kalashnikov is left in the alleyway.

An Rpg suddenly explodes on the top floor of the headquarter building we’re in. Amidst the blast we can make out the cries of injured soldiers staggering down the stairs as their comrades assist them. One is bleeding from an eye, another can’t walk. His foot is twisted, his boot has been penetrated by shrapnel. The unit’s only medical assistant is doing his best but he doesn’t even have a tourniquet to stop the hemorrhaging. The soldier’s foot is ripped open. The photojournalist Gabriele Micalizzi, who for a month has been by my side reporting the harsh Mosul battle, gets to work to save the injured soldier.

“We were making a hole in the wall to position a sniper. The top part of the wall collapsed and I saw an Rpg launched straight towards us. Then I remember the blast of the explosion and that’s it,” recounts the 26-year old, his leg bandaged.

The jihadist militia are so close they can throw the hand grenades into the houses garrisoned by the federal police. It’s a downpour of deafening explosions and smoke.  Bullets cut through the air with a hiss. After yet another grenade explosion more injured soldiers arrive at the command post. A captain with a Zapata-style moustache staggers along and can hear nothing. One of his men has been hit by shrapnel to the legs and side but will make it. Others are under shock. A hand grenade exploded on the roof they were defending. By now there are eight wounded and no bomb-proof shelter to put them in.

There is no sight of the reinforcements repeatedly requested. The reply over the radio is always the same.  “Hold your position at all costs”. The major sends all his men on the roof to guard entrances, but there is a shortage of “rumana”, as Iraqis call the hand grenades for close range combat. By mid-morning the black flags set fire to another house behind us on the wide road under sniper attack. No one dares admit it but they have in fact surrounded us on 180°.  The lookers on the roofs continue to point out jihadist militia 20 meters from us, moving nimbly to continue their assault.

The 5th battalion unit is hanging on by the skin of its teeth, shooting wildly. For those injured seriously the situation is becoming dire. Around midday a supply squad, blocked for hours by the snipers, reaches us with food and ammunition. The only escape route is to cross the two-lane road under attack by the black flags to another post. The armored tanks can’t reach us because the path is riddled with booby traps.

The Iraqis place themselves on either side of the road unleashing a barrage of infernal cover fire. The younger and stronger ones lift their injured comrades who can’t walk over their shoulders and run. Others help by shooting and acting as human shields. It looks like a movie, but it’s all real. It’s time for the journalists to cross but a sniper begins to shower the street with bullets. All we can do is wait. A hand grenade explodes so close that the smoke singes us. Shortly after, a breathless soldier announces, “We got the sniper. It’s your turn now.” Those who believe turn their prayers to God, then we all set off like 100-metre sprinters across the road, a policeman hopping on one leg alongside us. A moment later we are safely being escorted to the railway station by special agents. Behind our backs a column of black smoke spirals from one of the Islamic State’s posts hit by an air strike. The siege on our little Fort Apache continues.