The bodies washed up with grim regularity on the banks of the Tigris downstream from Mosul, a daily reminder of the vicious fight against ISIS that played out a few dozen miles away.
All were heavily decomposed, most bound and blindfolded, some mutilated. The corpses began arriving last spring, but as the mission to oust Isis militants from the once-thriving city intensified, so too did the number of dead floating towards the west bank town of Qayyarah.
“I see dead bodies in the water daily,” said Ahmed Mohammed, a driver, speaking earlier this year. “The number has increased since early April. There were five bodies floating in the river recently in one single day. They are young men with their hands tied behind their back and are blindfolded.”
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi this week declared victory after nearly nine months of fierce fighting to displace the extremist group from the city where it proclaimed its “caliphate” in 2014. But as Mosul lies in ruins – and the last women and children emerge from the rubble – a bloody picture of the campaign’s impact is emerging.
Local people who spotted corpses midstream would try to catch them and then call the army, Mohammed said. Soldiers then take them to a makeshift morgue at the city’s general hospital, run by Mansour Maroof Mansour.
Most of the dead found in the river with some identifiable features intact were young men who appeared to be in their late 20s, said Mansour, but he has learned little else about who they were.
“We can’t identify the bodies in the river. They are very decomposed and there is nothing on them to use for identification,” he said, standing in a room filled with dozens of bodybags. None had been claimed, and even that toll of the unknown dead is not exhaustive; some bodies are lost.
“(Once) the body of a boy also floated by but we could not catch it as it was too small and went through the gaps in the barrier,” said the driver Mohammed, who is haunted by guilt at letting the young boy drift away.
Human rights organisations had raised alarm about the number of unsolved killings in and around Mosul city and in particular the corpses washing up along the Tigris river. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said evidence points to government forces, killing suspected Isis members or collaborators without trial or due process.
Warning of the killings in April, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director for HRW said: “The bodies of bound and blindfolded men are being found one after the other in and around Mosul and in the Tigris river, raising serious concerns about extrajudicial killings by government forces. The lack of any apparent government action to investigate these deaths undermines the government’s statements on protecting detainee rights.”
Little has been done to investigate the killings, however. “The horrors that the people of Mosul have witnessed and the disregard for human life by all parties to this conflict must not go unpunished,” Lynn Maalouf, research director for Amnesty International in the Middle East, said.
The violence upstream casts a long shadow in Qayyarah, which was freed from Isis rule at the start of the nine-month Mosul campaign. Most residents are reluctant even to talk about the bodies in the river. “I don’t know anything about that subject,” said one fishmonger in the newly re-opened market, buzzing with soldiers and militia fighters.
Isis exploited Iraq’s sectarian tensions to facilitate its rise to power. Many Sunnis who felt disenfranchised by the Shia majority government or feared becoming targets of security forces welcomed or at least tolerated the group’s arrival in 2014. As the extremism and violence of Isis world view became clearer, many Sunnis left or privately turned against the group, but suspicions of collaboration linger and in some Sunni areas a sense of apprehension remains.
“Blood for blood,” reads graffiti on a wall of a house in Qayyarah that locals say belonged to Ali Khether, a well-known Isis commander who had lived in the town. He is described by one as “The child of adultery, Ali Khether, the Daeshi” – a name that refers to Daesh, a pejorative name for Isis.
Close by stands the town’s small stadium where Isis, with the aid of local people, killed dozens, with the most cursory of trials, on charges ranging from spying for the security services to homosexuality
Now as Isis retreats to the Syrian city of Raqqa and desert areas of western Iraq, those who were on the receiving end of their brutality for over two years have set up their own militia groups. Loosely attached to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), they are taking the law into their own hands.
“PMU militias have carried out a systematic pattern of violations, including enforced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings and torture of Sunni Arab men and boys, seemingly in revenge for IS attacks,” said Amnesty International in a report earlier this year.
Security forces who retook the town found the bodies of many Isis victims that had been dumped in the river, said Walid Khaled an officer at Qayyarah police station, but he had no idea who the more recent waves of dead might be. “We don’t know where they come from, they are unidentified,” he said.
Some in the town say the bodies are more Isis victims killed by the last fighters holed up in Mosul, but the Iraqi security forces had blocked the river around 20km outside the city with a floating boom designed to stop fighters sneaking out or reinforcements getting in by water. Territory further down river towards Qayyarah has been in the control of Iraqi security forces for months.
A soldier guarding a floating bridge connecting Munirah village, around 20km south of Mosul on the western bank, refused to give his name, but appeared to confirm that extrajudicial killings were taking place beside the river.
He showed the Guardian a video of himself and other soldiers, dragging a limp body with a bloody face along the edge of the water. “He was Daesh hiding in the reeds and we killed him,” the soldier said with satisfaction.
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