MOSUL, Iraq—Boxes and containers are piled up next to operating tables, chairs, and fridges outside the empty shell of Salam Hospital’s disemboweled main building. Both wings have been hit by coalition airstrikes, collapsing most of the seven floors within the hospital’s beige exterior, leaving only a facade punctured by tank shells and marked by smoke stains rising from the ground floor windows.
Volunteers navigate their way through a tangle of twisted aluminum strips that used to hold together walls. They pass contorted ventilation shafts collapsed onto a charred reception desk as they empty the gutted hospital of every last salvageable item. Anything still of use is trucked to a nearby hospital, where it is bolstering scarce resources.
After three months of battle and over two years under the rule of the so-called Islamic State, Mosul’s health sector is stretched beyond its limits, and the destruction of the city’s biggest and most prestigious hospital weighs heavily on the people here. It is symbolic of the price the city has had to pay for its liberation, which remains incomplete.
As the volunteers—hospital staff and also men from the neighborhood—continue to empty out the building, an elderly woman approaches their parked trucks.
“I need some medicine,” she pleads with Col. Khaleed Whadia, an Iraqi special forces commander overseeing the removal. The woman’s voice is frail, her movements slow. She is hunched over in her long, wide dress, white hair protrudes from her black headscarf.
“We have nothing here, this is not a hospital anymore. Everything has been destroyed,” says the colonel, almost apologetically.
The woman persists, insisting on the urgency of her medical needs.
“You can have a look inside and see if you find anything yourself,” the officer says finally.
“I have to go to a hospital,” says the women despairingly, more to herself than the small crowd gathered around her, before shuffling off.
Salam Hospital was the scene of ferocious fighting last December when the Iraqi army’s 9th Division threw caution to the wind and thrust deep into ISIS-held Mosul. At the hospital, its forward units were quickly surrounded and viciously attacked by the insurgents. Only airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and the intervention of elite counterterrorism troops allowed the soldiers of the 9th Division units to retreat, and even then at a heavy cost. Dropping at least 25 bombs, the coalition hit both buildings and the scores of armored vehicles the army left behind in the hospital complex.
An elite outfit known as the Emergency Response Division finally secured the hospital in January, while other specials forces known as the Golden Division broke ISIS resistance throughout the east bank of the Tigris, which bisects Mosul, after three months of heavy fighting.
The dark, scorched insides of Salam Hospital reveal the ferocity of the struggle.
In the burned-out entrance hall, two motorcycles used by the insurgents to move through the city without being spotted by coalition surveillance have been blackened by the flames.
Further in, unlit corridors are strewn with the detritus of war. An army helmet lies next to a padded cap worn by the drivers of the Soviet-era armored personnel carriers used by the Iraqi military. Ammunition holsters, flak vests, and shot-up personal armor have been tossed into a narrow outdoor area through broken windows, alongside a used antitank rocket launcher and empty ammunition boxes. Some of the gear is Iraqi army issue, some was carried by the insurgents.
In a staircase lie two dead ISIS fighters. The stench of decomposing flesh is limited by the heavy burns to their bodies.
A little further down the corridor, a swinging door leads to a part of the hospital’s right wing, where the insurgents had set themselves up. In the dark reception room, piles of blankets and mattresses are revealed by flashlight. A pair of combat boots, jackets, and cargo pants worn by the jihadists have been discarded.
“Daesh [ISIS] threw away their clothes and put on civilian clothing. You see a lot of discarded clothes in the neighborhood. Many of them escaped,” says Col. Whadia.
ISIS remains in control of the west bank of the Tigris, and its defeated fighters desperately tried to cross the river from the east bank in small boats. Some may have remained in east Mosul to form sleeper cells.
A carton of dates has been left on the reception desk, still edible, next to discs of rotting cream cheese. A metal bar and weights used by the jihadists to work out in their spare time indicate a long-term ISIS presence at Salam Hospital.
Under insurgent rule, a spiral of decline preceded the hospital’s destruction, says a doctor who worked here. Interfering little at first, the terror group soon began to charge patients for treatment that had been free before the jihadists took over the city in June 2014. The fees were modest for small services, but could rise to 100,000 dinars (roughly $100) for operations.
With Mosul’s economy in tatters, residents were struggling to afford such sums. The government stopped delivering medicine into Mosul soon after the ISIS takeover, and by the end of the first year of occupation, everything was in short supply.
Eventually, the insurgents installed their own general manager, and the hospital slid into chaos.
“The management became a mess,” says Dr. Atash, who managed to extract himself and his family from Mosul late in 2015, and now lives in Jordan.
Before the bombs hit Salam Hospital, its doctors were busy dealing with the collateral damage inflicted by the coalition bombing throughout the city.
“The trauma doctors suffered a lot,” says Atash. “They had to treat the victims of the airstrikes. A lot of civilians were hit by the bombs, even in the first year.”
The fighting has ceased in east Mosul, and the military’s focus is now on the west bank of the Tigris, which makes up the front line in the half-won battle. The soldiers manning their positions in houses near the waterfront have a clear view of the city center that sits lifeless and forbidding by the side of the river.
In the Al Zerai neighborhood near the vast Mosul Park, one of Mosul’s five bridges can be seen beyond a highway running parallel to the Tigris. It has been blown up, and its severed ends are dipped into the river.
Golden Division troops keep a close eye on the high weeds on the edge of the water, and scan the grey skies for enemy drones. ISIS has taken to converting commercial drones into remote-controlled bombers that drop hand grenades on their opponents, the latest innovation in the Mad Max warfare that characterized this conflict.
The elite counterterrorism troops have been trained by U.S. special forces, but conserving ammunition does not seem to have been on the training schedule.
As the radio chatter revolves around the latest drone sighting, automatic fire rings out along the river with little interruption. Almost as an afterthought, the soldiers sometimes also spray suspected sniper positions on the other side of the river with machine gun bursts.
They spot at least five drones every day, and have shot down five of them in the past 10 days, according to Second Lieutenant Omar, whose platoon has ensconced itself in a palatial house in the affluent Zirai area.
A few days earlier, the unit had to rush to the park, where ISIS fighters had crossed the river by hiding among civilians fleeing west Mosul by boat. They killed 14 insurgents who had come on an apparent suicide mission.
“Daesh want to die, or at least they don’t want to be captured,” says Captain Eshan, who led the soldiers rushing to the scene.
The Golden Division is beginning to shift to new positions in preparation of the assault on west Mosul. The terror group can still draw on thousands of jihadists to defend its last major stronghold in Iraq, and the elite soldiers will soon be dealing with ISIS fanaticism at close quarters again.