'The walls came apart around me': Mosul reels from horror air attacks
MOSUL, Iraq - "They say you don't hear the bomb that hits you, and it's true. I saw the walls coming apart around me and I thought it was a dream until I was actually pushing aside pieces of concrete falling on me in my bed," said Abdulrahman, recalling the dawn air raid in east Mosul that killed 18 people, including his parents and younger brother.
"I waited under the blankets for two minutes until everything was quiet and then I shouted to my brother Adnan, who shared a room with me," the 19-year-old said. "I shouted: 'Are you alive?' And he answered."
'The roof had cut our house in half. I called and called for my parents, but there was silence'
- Abdulrahman, Mosul air attack survivor
Adnan, 21, was lightly wounded, so Abdulrahman told him to wait in what remained of their bedroom while he searched for their parents in the smoking ruins of their family home.
"I started walking - trying to walk - but there was literally nothing left that was flat. It was like climbing over a mountain," he said.
"When I reached the sitting room I saw the roof had cut our house in half. I called and called for my parents, but there was silence. Everything was so utterly quiet."
Realising they were trapped beneath the rubble, Abdulrahman returned to his brother and started desperately calling out, hoping someone, anyone, would hear him. Their neighbour, Raffa - whose house had also been destroyed in the attack - shouted back and told Abdulrahman to crawl toward the sound of his voice.
"We crawled and crawled, and eventually we were close to his voice. He held out his hand and I grasped it and he pulled me out of the rubble," Abdulrahman said.
"The first thing I saw was his son Mohammed, 12, lying on the floor, writhing and screaming. His leg was bleeding a lot and he was so badly wounded it was terrifying to see."
Abdulrahman hoisted wounded Mohammed onto Raffa's back, and with Adnan and Raffa's 65-year-old mother, they managed to scramble out of a blown-out window. Holding hands, the five of them stepped out of the ruins - the only survivors from 23 people who had been sleeping inside a row of three family homes, all demolished in seconds.
The brothers waited in a neighbour's house for several hours, until their uncle asked them to help with recovery operations by trying to show them where their parents had been sleeping.
"I was still in shock and until that moment, I didn't realise we were the target," said Abdulrahman. "But, when I saw the houses, I realised we had been deliberately targeted. I couldn't believe it. And I couldn't believe that anyone could have got out of those houses alive."
While the brothers sheltered in their grandparents' house nearby, relatives and neighbours searched the rubble for survivors. There were none.
"At 9.30am they found my father, who had been killed in the air strike. At 12pm, they found my youngest brother Omran, 16. He was not hurt but had suffocated to death. His body was still warm when they found him, like he was sleeping. At 3.45pm, they found my mother, who was also not wounded but had suffocated," he said.
Exploited for propaganda
While local residents tried to move masonry in order to pull corpses from the rubble, a group of IS fighters appeared, filming and photographing the scene.
Within hours, video footage showing Raffa - his face smudged with blood, carrying the limp and bloodied body of his youngest son from the ruins - appeared on IS media outlets, which claimed the air strike was another example of how America's bombing campaign in Mosul was targeting civilians.
The victims of this deadly attack had been made part of IS's ruthless propaganda campaign.
The news office for the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) - the coalition supporting Iraq's fight against IS - told MEE that CJTF-OIR did not carry out any air strikes at the co-ordinates of the three houses.
But extended family members and neighbours, who say they heard nine missiles hit the three houses, insist that the Iraqi Air Force was not capable of carrying out such an attack.
"I'm sure it was coalition air strikes and not the Iraqi army because they fired nine missiles at the houses and they were very precise. We know the Iraqi planes can only drop one or two bombs at a time and they aren't usually very accurate," said Abdulrahman's uncle Bashar.
"But the coalition shouldn't make these mistakes."
He said both coalition and Iraqi warplanes need to carry out better checks on who is inside houses before destroying them.
"That morning 18 innocent people, including eight children, were killed in a matter of seconds," he said. "These air strikes in Mosul have killed more civilians than IS."
The affluent Hay Al-Zarai area was still a battleground into which Iraqi ground forces were trying to advance, making local cemeteries inaccessible.
As air strikes and IS mortars continued to pound the neighbourhood, relatives dug graves for Abdulrahman's and Adnan's parents, their younger brother and five of their neighbours who were killed.
"We buried them in my grandparents' garden, with Raffa's two daughters and youngest son, his mother-in-law and our other neighbour's wife," Abdulrahman said. "We buried eight of them there, one by one."
Inside the house, a local doctor and nurse struggled to patch up 12-year-old Mohammed's badly wounded leg. With Mosul's already largely ruined health-care facilities made inaccessible by fighting, they carried out two operations without anaesthetic in the basement. Mohammed is now in Jordan undergoing further surgery.
For Raffa, whose wife was executed by IS a year earlier for taking a photo of the nearby Grand Mosque in the snow, the air strike that killed three of his children and wounded his fourth was just another chapter in the tragedy Mosul became after IS seized control in 2014.
For Abdulrahman and Adnan, it was the moment when the much-anticipated liberation of Mosul turned into a waking nightmare.
"We waited for two years and seven months for liberation from IS and look what we got, look what happened. It's a disaster," said Abdulrahman.
"I have no words to describe how I feel. This is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and at times I have wished that I had been killed too."
Adding insult to injury
Ten days after the air strike, Iraqi ground forces entered the area and a special forces captain proudly showed the ruined houses to journalists, explaining that they had been occupied by IS militants. "IS always takes the corner houses for fighting positions because they are strategic and also enable a quick getaway," he said.
As the captain stood beside the rubble, a neighbour argued with him, saying the houses' occupants were ordinary civilians and demanding answers.
"Don't translate that," the captain told MEE's translator.
"It's a lie. We are not IS and there were no IS in our homes," Abdulrahman said furiously.
"The closest IS got to us was the day before the attack, when we saw two Russian IS guys standing nearby, checking something on an iPad."
The boys lost most of their possessions in the air strike and looters who scoured the rubble stole anything that remained. A handful of images on a mobile phone is all they have of their family and former life.
'It's a lie. We are not IS and there were no IS in our homes'
Looking at pictures of the rubble of his "ex-home" as he calls it, Abdulrahman pointed out his father's car - crushed under fallen masonry - the window frame through which the five survivors climbed, and an expanse of broken bricks that buried his family's once-beautiful garden.
"One body is still under the collapsed houses. There were two but a fortnight ago they retrieved the other, despite being shot at by an IS sniper still in the area. They found the body in our garden, under the rubble," Abdulrahman said. "We had such a beautiful garden. Every year my mum and I used to plan what we would plant in the spring."
The brothers now live in Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdish region, with extended family and are trying to rebuild their lives. Abdulrahman suffers from nightmares and flashbacks from the air strike. Like many other victims of the Mosul conflict, he has received no counselling or psychological support to help him survive the ordeal.
"I don't even know how to describe my feelings. It is such a tremendous loss. I literally buried three parts of my soul that day," Abdulrahman said. "But I know that my story is nothing compared to the stories we are going to hear from west Mosul after liberation."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.