Two years ago this month, a US-led military coalition declared victory against ISIS in Mosul, liberating one of Iraq's largest cities after three years of occupation by the radical Islamist group. While the eastern part of the city is on the road to recovery, West Mosul, where ISIS made its final stand, remains in ruins, with the bodies of civilians and Islamic State fighters still buried under the rubble. Although most refugees have returned to the city, around 300,000 are still displaced, many living in camps outside Mosul because their homes were destroyed in the fighting.
Photojournalist Cengiz Yar covered the Battle of Mosul for several international news agencies and has returned many times since to observe its recovery. Last year he partnered with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) to document the organization's mine- and ordnance-clearing operations. Like the rest of Iraq, Mosul suffers from mines and unexploded bombs left behind from decades of war. The US-led coalition dropped thousands more bombs on the city during its assault in 2016-2017, a significant percentage of which didn't explode on impact. And ISIS planted countless mines and IEDs during its desperate last stand; it also left behind undetonated suicide belts. (Although officially defeated, ISIS is still trying to carry out suicide bombings in Mosul.)
"The amount of ordinance used by both sides in the battle was just staggering," Yar says. Wearing special protective gear, the Brooklyn-based photographer followed UNMAS teams as they carefully disarmed IEDs and unexploded bombs around the city. He also captured some of the risk education classes that UNMAS conducts at schools around the country to educate Iraqi children about the dangers of buried bombs. "Some of the biggest victims of unexploded ordnance are children, because [the explosives] often look like toys," Yar points out. "I've met children who picked up bombs and were injured, as well as parents who have lost kids to bombs."
Yar shot portraits of some of the Mosul residents who have been trained by UNMAS to identify and disarm the explosive devices. It's dangerous work, but in Iraq's sputtering economy any job is a good job. "There aren't a lot of employment opportunities in Iraq, even for college-educated men, so any income helps," Yar says. "Often these workers are supporting not just their wife and kids but their brother's wife and kids."
While the US led the military campaign that liberated Mosul, it left other countries to pick up the pieces; Germany has provided the bulk of UNMAS's $84 million budget for its Iraq operations in 2018 and 2019, with 18 other countries pitching in. Yar is critical of America's failure to fund the explosive clearance efforts. "If you destroy something, you should take some responsibility for fixing it," he says. "Especially for a nation like ours, that had a role in destabilizing Iraq [through the 2003 invasion] and then dropping thousands and thousands of bombs on the population, I think we have a duty to help."