How I Got the Photo – Edouard Plante-Fréchette (picture story)

2016 NPOY PICTURE STORY NEWS, Finalist – Account from the combat in Mosul, Iraq, against the Islamic State. In October 2016, the Iraqi Army began a campaign to reclaim the city in control by the Islamic State since June 2014. (Edouard Plante-Fréchette / La Presse)

In 2014, the Islamic State took control of a large territory in Syria and Iraq, killing thousands in the process. The Iraqi Army completely failed to organize a cohesive resistance and key cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul were swiftly subjugated. An international coalition was eventually formed to give aid and support the Iraqis and Kurdish in their fight against this singular terrorist organization.

In October 2016, after months of fighting, the Iraqi authorities launched a final offensive to retake control of the Ninawa province — and more specifically — the city of Mosul. The Iraqi Army entered Mosul for the first time in more than two years and encountered a well-organized resistance from the militants. As the conflict evolved, however, the Islamic State was slowly but surely losing its grip on the city and was using ever more reckless tactics against civilians and the advancing army.

In November 2016, the Canadian Army invited some media organizations, including La Presse, to visit the coalition forces base in Erbil, 80 kilometers from Mosul. After 48 hours of travel marked by many transits and delays, we finally arrived in Erbil. The next day, the different media representatives, Special Forces generals and public relations officers boarded Griffon helicopters and were taken to visit Peshmerga’s generals and the advanced positions of the Kurdish fighters around Mosul. The media visit was very short, we ended up spending only one day with the Canadian Forces in Iraq.

Following that trip and back in Erbil now, my colleague Vincent Larouche and I finally met with our fixer. We discussed how to make the best of the five short days we were allowed to cover the situation in Mosul. After working on stories about the thousands of displaced civilians, we only had two days left to get close to the frontline.

Stuck at a checkpoint of the Iraqi Army for half a day, we managed to get in contact with a general who finally let us through. Upon reaching the district of Gagjali, on the eastern frontline, we could hear the firefights and massive explosions of the battle raging less than a kilometer away. Dozens of people, most of them families with young children, were walking away from the fighting brandishing white flags. At an ill-equipped makeshift medical centre managed by NGOs, we saw a Kurdish journalist who had been shot in the backside by a sniper. Then two black Humvees, carrying wounded civilians and dead soldiers, arrived at full speed, lifting a giant cloud of dust.

The next day, we took an armoured vehicle to go deeper into the city. The ride was bumpy (to say the least) and my seat consisted of boxes of ammunitions and a wooden crate filled with grenades. In Kirkukli, close to a hundred men had been rounded up in a neighbourhood mosque, as the Iraqi officials searched for Islamic State militants.

Returning to the medical center in Gagjali, the medics were packing up for a much-needed break after working 10 days in a row. Just as they were ready to leave, an entire family arrived after being hit by a mortar fire. The mother was missing a leg. Her children (who were only lightly wounded) were yelling and crying in shock. A few minutes later another truck arrived, limbs of flesh hanging from its trunk. All were dead.

 

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