By Louisa Loveluck, The Washington Post
MOSUL, Iraq – The streets of Mosul’s Old City are littered with bodies, tangled between shattered stones and remnants of the lives they left behind.
In the baking summer heat, exhausted rescue crews are now sifting through the debris of the toughest battle against the Islamic State in what became its final redoubt in the city.
As Iraqi ground troops, U.S.-led coalition jets and Islamic State militants pulverized the Old City’s winding maze of streets last week, thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire.
But the area is now deserted. Its inhabitants evacuated to houses, camps or prison cells across the province in recent months.
A week after Iraqi officials declared victory in Mosul, all that remains in the Old City is rubble and unknown hundreds of bodies.
Aid groups say that thousands of civilians were killed in the nine-month offensive. A final death toll is unlikely to ever be known, robbing families of answers and a grave for their grief.
Across western Mosul, hundreds of families are still waiting for news. Others know exactly where their loved ones were killed but are still unable to reach them.
On Friday, Sumaya Sarhan, 48, waited in the rescue workers’ sun-parched yard for her brother’s remains, three months after the airstrike that killed him.
“We lived opposite and tried so many times to get him out. But it was too dangerous, there was too much fighting. Today, I finally saw him pulled from the rubble.”
Staring resolutely forward, for a moment Sarhan looked lost amid the bustle of the workers around her. Then she started to cry.
“He’s just bones. Just bones,” she said.
The task of cutting bodies from their homes in this, the most devastated swath of the city, has fallen to a 25-man civil defense unit with one bulldozer, a forklift truck and a single vehicle to carry the corpses.
They have found hundreds of people suffocated under the ruins of their homes. Then, there are the those the Islamic State shot as they tried to flee, their bodies left to rot in the sunshine as a message to anyone else who might attempt to escape.
“It was slow going today. Mainly women and children,” said one of the rescue workers, Daoud Salem Mahmoud, stooping over a green canvas bag he had pulled from the rubble.
It was bulging, apparently packed by its owner as they waited for rescue. And as Daoud laid out its contents one by one, the shape of a life emerged.
In the back of an Iraqi passport, a black-and-white image of a dark-haired young woman smiled out at the camera. A green purse was empty aside from the business card of a Mosul wedding photographer. And then came her jewelry: gold bangles, small rings, a single heart-shaped earring.
Sitting quietly on the step of a hut nearby, 21-year-old Ahmed Salem said the woman was a relative, killed when an airstrike hit their home. He was waiting to collect her body, alongside those of seven cousins, most of them already stacked in body bags on the back of a rescue truck.
The team’s vehicles were parked on one side of the yard, all of them battered from months of overuse.
In another corner of the civil defense base, four men gathered around a teenager as he unzipped one of the body bags.
It was hard to distinguish its charred contents as the remnants of a person.
“How do you know it’s him? Are we sure?” asked one man.
“I recognize his blanket. It has to be,” the teenager said. He closed the bag.
Mosul’s Old City had more than 5,000 buildings, many of them high-ceilinged houses built around traditional courtyards.
Almost a third were damaged or destroyed during the final three weeks of fighting, according to the United Nations.
Across the entire city, which had a population of almost 2 million before the Islamic State arrived, satellite imagery shows battle scars or total destruction across more than 10,000 buildings. Although life has returned to the relatively less damaged eastern districts, which were retaken by Iraqi forces months earlier, the infrastructure in the west has been devastated.
As the rubble is cleared, the streets have become a theater for quiet scenes of grief. In dozens of interviews, Washington Post reporters did not meet a single person in the area who had not lost a friend or relative in the fighting.
Rescue work has been slowed by a lack of funding. Lt. Col. Rabia Ibrahim Hassan, who leads west Mosul’s civil defense team, said he had asked authorities for more equipment but hadn’t received an answer.
“Our men are doing this work with practically nothing. Just a bulldozer, a forklift truck and small equipment. The work continues, but we are exhausted,” he said.
Much of the team remained in Mosul under Islamic State rule. “Of course we worked under them. You didn’t have a choice,” said Sgt. Mohammed Shaaban Hodour, insisting that the militants did not interfere with their work during their three years of control.
“In a time of war, you cannot do without us. We’ll stay here until our work is done.”