TOPZAWA, Iraq — The voice of an Iraqi soldier boomed from a loudspeaker planted among the 20 armored Humvees that had rumbled to the walls of this village on the outskirts of Mosul after an hourlong gun battle.
“We don’t have any problem with you,” the voice said, as residents cowered in their homes. “Put a white flag on your home and you’ll be safe.”
With the loudspeaker still crackling, a neon ray streaked down from the sky and the village shook from the explosion of an airstrike. “Brothers, come toward me,” the voice continued. “The plane is not going to hit you. Just come.”
As residents of this northern village began walking nervously toward the Humvees, members of the Iraqi special forces exited their vehicles with guns at the ready. Many had memories of similar scenes, with ISIS hiding among civilians at the end of previous battles to make a last attempt to kill them. The battle for Topzawa had been fierce. The soldiers had faced down heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Now, one hour later, they were trying to coax civilians out. Women carried children over the waist-high wall as the soldiers barked at men to lift their shirts to show that they weren’t wearing suicide bombs.
After some 25 people had clambered over the wall, two women approached carrying an infirm old man. The soldiers stayed on alert as they watched the trio advance, the natural impulse to assist him tempered by the nervous caution of the moment. “Go and help him,” an officer finally said, breaking the tension. Seeming relieved, a soldier threw his rifle on the hood of a Humvee and rushed to take the man in his arms.
The road ahead is difficult for civilians and soldiers alike as the US-backed offensive to wrest Mosul from ISIS closes on the city. The militants are entrenched among an estimated 1 million people in their most important city and are expected to take cover among them. Aid groups have been sounding the alarm for months about an impending humanitarian crisis and scrambling to ready camps and provisions for the masses of people who the fighting is expected to displace.
If the Mosul offensive is successful, the way the city is won by the Iraqi military and its allies — how many people are harmed, how many homes are destroyed, and how residents are treated along the way — will be critical to determining the success of the government that takes ISIS’s place.
Mosul’s civilians, who have spent more than two years trapped under the brutal rule of the militants, are left with little choice but to brace for the bloodshed and hope to survive.
After ushering the first wave of civilians out of the village, called Topzawa, the soldiers got into formation and streamed over the wall to begin securing it on foot. Small children peered out from houses as soldiers passed down the streets. Some men and women peeked out from doorways. Others waved pieces of white cloth tied to sticks.
A group of soldiers entered one home with seven small children gathered inside. A woman there asked: “Do you know if they released the prisoners ISIS had?”
She said her father had been arrested three months prior by the militants, accused of providing their enemies with locations for airstrikes.
ISIS had prevented the family from leaving the village, which is about 5 miles from Mosul, she said, asking repeatedly if it would now be possible for them to move to Kurdish-controlled territory. “We were like prisoners,” she said, as an explosion sounded nearby. “Come and see our kitchen — we don’t have food, flour, anything. If we had breakfast, then we worried about lunch, and if we had lunch, then we worried about dinner.”
Across the street, a shirtless man in his twenties was cowering on his knees, his hands bound behind his neck with zip ties. The soldiers looming over him said he was an ISIS fighter, and one of them held out a saran-wrapped belt of explosives that he said the man had planned to use as a suicide bomb. “I’m not with ISIS. I didn’t do anything,” the man said.
“Just shut the fuck up and keep your head down,” a soldier replied.
Pressed further, the soldiers said the bomb had been found separate from the man, but that they believed he was ISIS because he had tried to run from them. As more soldiers gathered, the man, who said his name was Habash, experienced a dizzying array of slights and kindnesses: One soldier ashed a cigarette on him, and another wiped it off. Another gave him a cigarette to smoke, another smacked him on the forehead, and another mocked him for crying.
Finally, a lieutenant grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck and pulled him from the crowd, saying he was going to shoot him. He reached for his pistol but then thought better of it and put the prisoner in the back of a Humvee instead. He was later released.
ISIS’s history of hiding among civilians to launch attacks kept the soldiers in a heightened state of suspicion even after the village was secured. “I wouldn’t even trust my own father if I saw him out here,” one of the soldiers said as a group of civilians with a white flag walked past. He described an incident in Anbar province earlier this year in which gunmen hidden among civilians had opened fire on him.