Meet Awra, the four-year-old blinded in that Mosul airstrike

Meet Awra, the four-year-old blinded in that Mosul airstrike
Exclusive: Her mother was one of at least 100 killed that day. Her father was badly injured. Awra was one of the few pulled from the rubble still breathing.
6 min read
04 April, 2017
Awra has only known the rule of the Islamic State group [Cengiz Yar]
In a hospital bed in west Erbil, 80 kilometres east of war-stricken Mosul, Awra sits upright playing with a doll she cannot see.

At just four years old, she has spent the majority of her short life growing up in the Islamic State's Iraqi "capital", alongside 1.5 million other Iraqis.

For the people of Mosul, this bloody battle was supposed to spell the beginning of the end of an especially dark period -but a high civilian casualty toll has done little to ease the suffering for many of Mosul's most vulnerable.

On March 17, as the brutal battle continued to push deep into Mosul's west, residents of the city's Al-Jadida neighbourhood began crowding into houses near the front line in anticipation of their impending liberation.

Just a handful of Islamic State group militants, supported by suicide bombers, had manged to put up a deadly level of resistance against advancing elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces.

"I never saw more than five or six [IS fighters] in our area," said Alia, Awra's grandmother, resting on the edge of the four-year-old's hospital bed.

Civilians had taken to gathering in the neighbourhood's tallest buildings - several stories were thought to offer increased protection against mortars and airstrikes.

Four-year-old Awra's eyes were fused shut with burning shrapnel in the airstrike likely to have been carried out by US-led aircraft [Cengiz Yar]

"We would hang out laundry to warn the aircraft there were civilians in the building," said Ziyad, a first responder to the airstrike believed to have killed more than 100 civilians.

Ziyad is 35. A former swimming coach for the Iraqi national team, he now wears a glass eye in his right socket - a reminder of a devastating suicide bombing carried out in 2004 by Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group's predecessor in Iraq.

He recalls March 17. "There was lots of gunfire that day towards the Iraqi soldiers, but we couldn't see the jihadists, they fired from the rooftops and moved between buildings through holes in the walls - they are invisible."

After hearing at least two huge explosions at "around 8pm", he grabbed a simple hammer and charged to the site of the strikes, along with dozens of other local residents.

"There were voices coming from deep under the rubble, but we helped the easy ones on the top first. By the time we had finished, the other voices had stopped."

Dozens of bodies are believed to remain under the rubble. Ziyad said there had been so many people sheltering in the house that some had been forced to take cover in the corridors - and even in the house's front yard.

Four-year-old Awra was one of those dragged from the remains of the bombed-out building. Her grandmother described spotting her distinctive green boots upside down amid the dust - and rescuers pulled her out alive.

Awra's mother wasn't so fortunate. Her legs were separated from the top half of her body; she was already dead when rescuers got to her.
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battle to retake Mosul

While Awra's father also survived the strike, it will fall to her grandmother to raise her.

"There is no-one else to take responsibility, it has to be a woman, for cultural reasons," she tells The New Arab.

Awra's tiny body is covered in burns. Her right leg is broken and both her eyes were fused shut by shrapnel. Doctors are unsure if they will ever be able to open them again.

And even after the dust had settled, the Islamic State group militants in charge of the area refused to let them flee to a government-controlled hospital. For three agonising days, Arwa's grandmother pleaded with the fighters. Still they refused.

"We were caught in a grinder," she recalled. Only once the jihadists were beaten back by Iraqi troops were they able to flee to nearby Erbil for much-needed medical treatment.

While initial reports suggest that anywhere between 150 and 500 civilians had been killed in a single airstrike, it now appears a volley of airstrikes hit several targets in the area, causing at least two buildings to fully collapse.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, said there was an investigation ongoing, but admitted the likelihood that it was his aircraft that launched the deadly bombing.

"Is it possible that we did that? Yes, I think it is possible," he reporters. "Because we struck in that area, I think there's a fair chance that we did it."

The reality of what took place here has been shrouded in disinformation amid efforts by the Iraqi authorities to restrict access to the site of the airstrike. A week-long ban on journalists entering areas of west Mosul controlled by the Iraqi Counter-Terror Forces prevented The New Arab from reporting from the strike location on three occasions, as bodies were removed from the site.
Awra may never see her doll again [Cengiz Yar]

Both the US-led coalition and Iraqi authorities say that an airstrike may have ignited a nearby fuel truck or Islamic State car bomb - neither of which have been verified independently.

Airwars, a British organisation monitoring coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has counted more than 11,500 airstrikes in Iraq since the air campaign against the Islamic State group began almost three years ago. With civilian casualties now climbing into the thousands, some are suggesting the strikes may be doing more harm than good in the fight for Mosul.

The risk that the Iraqi government might lose the people of Mosul in the process of winning back the city has always been a concern. And despite the Iraqi forces being hailed as heroic for their actions in the city's west, the people of Mosul Al-Jadida are rapidly losing faith in the government forces.

"We know the planes can see an egg on the ground," says Ziyad. "They were capable of hitting the house next door and not damaging ours, but not anymore. We don't trust them."

Erbil has served as something of a safe haven for those who have suffered in Mosul, both at the hands of the Islamic State group during its occupation and during the battle for its liberation - but the hospitals run by locals and international NGOs are, woth increasing frequency, now treating those injured by Iraqi and coalition forces.

One Iraqi medic, who declined to be named, said: "Recently, I sometimes wonder whose side we are on."

Above Awra's quiet hospital room in Erbil, a coalition aircraft roars, a common feature of life in this city. Grandmother Alia skips a breath, and tears begin to form in her eyes.

"In a few weeks, the politicians will come looking for votes… we don't want them."

Gareth Browne is reporting from the front lines in the battle for Mosul. Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth