SORAN, Iraq — Shirwan Shikho stands proudly, posing in his combat gear as the sun rises above a battlefield on the outskirts of Mosul. The 22-year-old soldier is in his prime, strapping and lean, a smile on his face. It’s the morning of October 20 last year, and the US-backed offensive for the city is in its heady early days. Shirwan, a new husband and father, feels he is just where he is supposed to be. He comes from a long line of soldiers, and now, as local forces bear down on the ISIS stronghold, he is advancing with one of the most elite fighting units in Iraq.
His battalion of Kurdish special forces are gathered north of Mosul at a dusty outpost surrounded by fields, preparing to launch a daring assault through ISIS lines. He will man a machine gun mounted on an armored Humvee in the lead convoy. The brutal war on ISIS in Iraq has already left hundreds of local soldiers killed and maimed, but after all the atrocities that ISIS has committed, Shirwan feels he has no choice but to stop them.
Shirwan’s family background winds through the long history of conflict shared by the 8 million ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq — wars that claimed the lives of an uncle, a grandfather, and other relatives — but those had been lonely struggles confined to the region’s mountains and valley cities. In Shirwan’s fight against ISIS, the Kurdish cause and the global war on terror have aligned. US special forces troops have spent the night camped around the outpost’s dirt barricades, and a small contingent of them will accompany the convoy into battle to call in US airstrikes. The world’s media has also descended on Iraq to cover the multipronged offensive, in which Kurdish forces, Iraqi soldiers, and Shiite militiamen are working together across various fronts. A photographer and I joined Shirwan’s secretive unit for the attack.
Shirwan believes he is fighting both to free Kurdish land from ISIS and to stop its international campaign of violence. Before the convoy embarks, a comrade snaps a photo of him on his phone, capturing him in the moment — a front-line soldier for a world obsessed with terror. Then Shirwan pulls himself into his Humvee’s turret, and the convoy rolls out past the safety of the barricades.
Less than half a day has passed since that photo was taken, and now Shirwan is lying slumped in the arms of his fellow soldiers. His eyes have rolled back into his head, and his face, drained of blood, is a ghostly white. Both legs are mangled. One, with half its foot missing, dangles unnaturally to the side.
Bullet casings, artillery shells, and the carcasses of suicide truck bombs scar the landscape around him as the sun recedes behind the battlefield. Shirwan’s unit had just succeeded in a daring mission to drive a 7-mile wedge into ISIS territory, allowing regular forces to fill in behind. But when they stopped to make camp they were surrounded by ISIS on three sides. Mortar bombs rained down on them from the south, east, and west.
The mortar that tore through Shirwan had arced down through the darkening sky. It crashed into a group of soldiers as they sheltered beside a Humvee, bursting into shrapnel and searing heat. The explosion sent me careening forward, and in the chaos that followed, the photographer took a picture of Shirwan as he was carried from the blast site. Nearby, two soldiers were pocked with non-lethal shrapnel wounds, while a third, his stomach torn, lay dying in a pool of blood. Shirwan’s comrades carried him 15 yards and set him on the ground, where medics, trying to stem the rush of blood from his body, strapped tourniquets to each of his thighs.
Three months later and 100 miles from the battlefield, Shirwan props himself up with a cushion on the living-room floor of a modest home in a city called Soran deep in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. A blanket covers his legs to stave off the winter cold. His wife, Nazeera, and their 2-year-old daughter Shivar sit on either side. His iPhone, never far from reach, is close at hand. His face has regained its vigor in the time since his injury, but his muscles have weakened, and his arms are thin. Hidden beneath the blanket, both legs have been amputated just below the knee. They are wrapped in white bandages that he must change throughout each day.
The Kurdish role in the battle for Mosul is largely complete. Iraqi forces occupy the eastern half of the city, and the final assault to retake the west is slowly but steadily succeeding. But the advance is coming with a mounting death toll. Hundreds of soldiers have been killed or wounded — as have hundreds of civilians, many from US-led airstrikes. When the battle is over, American troops will phase out of the country, the world’s attention will fade, and the local soldiers and their families who have borne the brunt of the human cost of the victory will be left to grapple with what was lost along the way.
Shirwan tries not to dwell on what he has sacrificed. “It happened. It’s over. If I feel bad about it, it’s not going to change anything,” he says. “You have to be realistic.”
Family members fill in details about the hard days he has faced; some he doesn’t remember, and others he doesn’t want to talk about. More than 40 of his kin rushed to the hospital when he arrived, floating in and out of consciousness, in the hours after his injury. They found him pale and rigid from blood loss, on the verge of death. At times he thought he was still among his fellow soldiers, shouting, “Mortars! Get down!” His left leg was amputated there. The regional government then flew him to Jordan in hopes of saving the right. But after 45 days at a hospital in the capital, Amman, undergoing one surgery after the next, his other leg was amputated too. Then he returned to his family in the mountains.
As Shivar gallops and plays around him, she is careful not to touch his legs, knowing how badly they hurt him. Jagged scars and stitches mark the fleshy stumps, which still bleed as his body passes the pieces of shrapnel that have lodged deep inside. Nazeera thinks Shivar has been changed by the injury, still adjusting to the loss of the robust and active dad she knew. “Before she used to ask her father to do a lot of things with her, to play with her,” she says. “Now she doesn’t, because she knows he can’t.”
Shirwan turns frequently to his phone as the afternoon hours pass, surfing the web, messaging friends, and scrolling through the memories packed into his cache of photos. One picture shows him striding through a field with a smiling Shivar tucked beneath his arm. A video shows him dancing at a wedding a month before his injury. “That was my favorite thing, to dance. I used to know all the moves,” he says. He glides with an easy confidence in the video, dressed smartly in a trim blue suit, a slim green tie, and a white shirt that is gradually becoming untucked.
Another video shows him lying on a hospital bed as doctors work frantically on his freshly wounded legs. They are prodding the serrated flesh, but as they operate, Shirwan looks at the camera as if there’s nothing wrong. In fact, he is belting out the lyrics to an old Kurdish war song. “I didn’t want to scream or show pain,” he says. “So instead of that I tried to get it out by singing.”
Soran is Nazeera’s hometown, but Shirwan hails from a village even deeper in the mountains. A relative carries him to an SUV’s passenger seat for the winding drive home. The road climbs past snowy panoramas of ranges that stretch into Iran and Turkey. Then a dirt path climbs even higher, to the steps of the family home, where Shirwan’s father, Qassim, takes him in his arms and walks him through the door.
In the receiving room, a wood-burning furnace blazes. Relatives filter in to join Shirwan, sitting against the walls. The family carries scars and memories from decades of Kurdish wars — a history that stretches from the Kurdish-Iraqi wars of the 1960s and ’70s to internal conflicts and battles with the genocidal Saddam Hussein regime. Qassim’s father died fighting in 1994, and his brother two years before that. Qassim himself is a veteran. Sipping tea on one side of the room is Shirwan’s older brother, who is on leave from a front line facing ISIS. Three cousins were killed on the same day last year in the war with the militants. Sipping tea on the other side of the room is an uncle who wears a prosthetic on his left leg, which he lost to a land mine long ago. “I hike. I drive. I even ride a bicycle,” the uncle says, in a remark not addressed to Shirwan but meant for him to hear.
The house is full of life, with children running from room to room and noisy preparations for dinner. Together the family seems to be gently pressing on Shirwan in an invisible embrace. They share stories of soldiers, even a famous singer, who have lost limbs and carried on with good lives. They bring his wheelchair when it’s needed, serve and clear his food, and keep a constant watch on him from the corners of their eyes.
Later, in a quieter moment on his own, Shirwan opens a small window onto his pain. “It’s a big deal. I lost my legs. It’s very, very sad,” he says. “I’m not going to be the same person.”
He talks briefly about some of the things he’ll miss: hikes in the mountains, soccer games.
Then he says: “Thinking about it is not going to change the reality. It happened. It’s over. I have to handle it and accept it.”
On the battlefield in the hours before he was injured, Shirwan had the feeling that “everybody was watching,” he recalls. “ISIS, they don’t exist only here. They exist in France, in Turkey, in America. If you see someone chopping off a person’s head, your conscience doesn’t allow you to accept it. You must do something about it. If you’re a good person, you don’t let it happen.”
No one is watching now but his family and neighbors — like the ones who had driven by with sympathetic waves on the road from Soran, or the checkpoint officer who had smiled and nodded gratefully. Their attention and care keep him going, he says. He fought a war that was both global and local, but he will rely in its aftermath on the people around him and his place in their history. “We won’t forget. Every time I look at myself, I know where I got injured. And some people, they gave everything,” he says. “In my case, I sacrificed my legs for the people of Kurdistan. Who knows, maybe I saved someone’s life.”
After dinner, more bodies pile together on the sitting-room floor — uncles, cousins, childhood friends. They talk, laugh, smoke, and drink tea, passing the pitch-black evening hours. Shivar bursts in from the porch with a freezing gust of mountain air. A young man plays the tanbur, an instrument like an acoustic guitar with an elongated neck and a rounded base. He taps the base methodically as he strums, giving his mournful music a rhythm like a heartbeat. Someone erupts into song — silencing the room with a baritone that bounces off the walls. The singer, a muscular soldier who is one of Shirwan’s best friends, employs his full body as he soars slowly through an old folk song, his torso convulsing on the high notes. It is a simple song about a woman who leaves a man, but it is also about suffering. Shirwan watches quietly from a corner, his blanket on his lap. Then he takes over. The sound comes weaker from his recovering body, but it blends with the music from the tanbur. Shivar throws her head joyously up toward the ceiling and begins to twirl and dance.
The next morning is clear and bright. Shirwan is making his way up the side of a mountain near his home, sitting in the passenger seat of Qassim’s SUV as it slides along snow-covered dirt roads.
When they arrive at the peak, Qassim carries Shirwan to his wheelchair, rolls him haltingly through the snow for a final few yards, and hands him an assault rifle.
Shirwan handles the glistening weapon like the well-trained soldier he is. He takes a round of target practice, shooting at rocks and into trees. He is still an expert shot, and he hopes to return to his place at the machine gun in his Humvee’s turret one day. Gunner is an ideal role, he says, for a soldier with prosthetic legs.
For now, though, this is just a dream to keep him going. All he has in front of him is the mountain and his family today. He takes photos constantly, adding to his phone’s ever-growing cache.
As a final test, his father props a cigarette on a small branch in the snow about 100 yards away. One shot cracks through the air, and then another, each of them a narrow miss. The third makes the cigarette disappear. “That’s finished,” Shirwan says.
Then he holds up his phone, smiles, and takes a selfie.