'While Searching for Dead ISIS Fighters in Iraq, I Found Refuge in My Friends'

We are sitting in the heat outside Mosul. I rest a cigarette between my lips and roll down the rear passenger window. The sun is bearing down on my thighs. I stick to everything. The car is off. The only cool air comes from the lowered window. I light my cigarette. I hate the driver.

I ask Sandra, the photographer, whether she thinks people are born good or bad. Most, she believes, are born good. I tell her I think people are born inherently good, but it takes only one small thing to turn them bad. "Being good is a choice," I say, "being bad is a rather easy default. After a taste of evil it's easier to be bad than return to good. It's a fight to stay human, to remain concerned." I am blathering nervously, diverting my attention from my frustration and discomfort.

We talk about the different acronyms fighting to liberate Mosul, Iraq—Federal Police, Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), or various militias—and soon a Humvee directs us to follow it and we do.

Along the road I am always looking ahead, wondering whether that crumpled piece of trash is hiding a roadside bomb. I try to comfort myself that there would likely be no munitions in an area heavily trafficked by the Iraqi military, with them having cleared this area long ago. I try to comfort myself in this thought, only to remember that the sleeper cells around Mosul are getting more daring and craftier.

A nighttime journey to this area to place a bomb would not be unheard of. We take a turn and navigate through a small pass between dirt hills. A row of train tracks sits on the horizon, connecting two more small dirt hills. To our right and left are deep wadis, or valleys, filled with the debris of war and refuse from the nearby village of Albu Saif.

I realize that were we to hit a landmine, or be targeted by a drone or rocket propelled grenade (RPG), it is likely that my bulletproof vest or helmet would not save me from those injuries. I am grateful that Sandra is a medic. She has a greater chance of saving me in the event of an attack than the plates and helmet tucked into the door, mostly worthless but designed to encourage me into places of discomfort such as this.

I ask the driver to stop and I tell my fixer that I want to get out and see the valley below. There's a Humvee wreckage, or what appears to be the hood of the Humvee, and some other debris. The escort ahead doubles back and says there was fighting here and there's a dead body down there and another up on the hill. I say I want to go look and they park on the side of the road, as casually as pulling onto the shoulder of a highway, and I step down onto the trailhead leading to the first body.

Before we go onward, another Humvee arrives and out steps a man who identifies himself as a captain who oversaw the fighting here, and who was based in Albu Saif during the first days of the operation to free East Mosul, where we are now. His lieutenant shoulders an M16 and I follow him to the where the body is lying.

I put some distance between me and the lieutenant in the event he steps on a landmine first. I am not wearing my vest or helmet but do not feel exposed. I feel quite light-footed and agile. I point to the bodies I see so that Sandra can start shooting photos.

The fixer and the driver, meanwhile, are laughing and jumping around. They are cracking jokes with the privates and are skidding their way down the hill into the valley. It almost seems like they are skiing, horsing around inside a war zone, nearest to the dead bodies of two men.

I grow agitated, feeling as though the safety of myself and Sandra is reliant on two juveniles prancing in a minefield. I want to tell them to watch their step but consider whether Sandra and I may be better off if they were blown sky-high. I try not to focus on them and follow the lieutenant from the first body to the second, which requires us navigating a rabbit trail into the valley.

Mosul Iraq U.S. Troop Withdraw
An Iraqi soldier walks at the Qayyarah air base, where US-led troops in 2017 had helped Iraqis plan out the fight against the Islamic State in nearby Mosul in northern Iraq, before a planned US pullout on March 26, 2020. In April 2017, journalist Kenneth R. Rosen traveled to this area of Iraq on assignment. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

We come across the desiccated remains of an ISIS fighter, his bones tangled in the clothing he wore in the battle that took place here. His skull and jaw and femur soaked in a puddle at the edge of a drainage ditch running beneath the overhead train tracks.

Sandra gets close to the bones to photograph them as I make my report and interview the soldiers, who gather around me and are alternately speaking with me and joking with my fixers. Sandra asks if we can go. Not only is the smell getting to her (oblivious, I can't smell anything) but the fixer and driver are bopping around like Bouncing Bettys.

They think this is some game, perhaps they're scared. I am doing my own translating while they watch. I begin to wonder what not being able to smell the stench of death says about me, and my choice in coming to a war zone without any prior experience.

I tell the gang that we should leave. I can't tell them why: that I'm frustrated by their inattention, that they are not helping me translate the way I need them to in order to finish my mission, that they are making Sandra uncomfortable. How many times does one need to say something before they are certain it won't ever be heard?

Kenneth R. Rosen is a senior editor and correspondent at Newsweek. This is an edited and amended extract from "Bulletproof Vest" detailing an assignment to Iraq in April 2017. Used with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned. Copyright © 2020 Kenneth R. Rosen.

All views expressed in this article are the writer's own.