Death carts carry family ripped apart by Mosul campaign

Tony Gamal-Gabriel
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Relatives transport the bodies of west Mosul residents allegedly killed in an airstrike targeting Islamic State group jihadists on March 17, 2017

As a convoy of wooden carts descends a hill outside Iraq's war-torn second city of Mosul, a child's foot, greyed with dust, pokes out from under brightly coloured blankets.

Ziad Khalaf says an air strike earlier this week targeting Islamic State group fighters in west Mosul killed 21 members of his family.

"They were pulled from the rubble. Twenty-one bodies, women and children. Even a baby of just six months," he says.

"I hadn't seen them in 20 days."

The rickety carts crawl along the muddy road under a leaden sky.

More feet protrude from under red, green, blue and pink blankets. Some are bare and dusty, others wear socks. A deep wound splits a little girl's face from cheek to ear.

Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition are pressing a vast offensive to seize Iraq's second city from IS, whose members have used civilians as human shields to slow approaching forces.

When Iraqi fighters entered Khalaf's Wadi Hajar neighbourhood in the city's southwest, he was able to hide as IS withdrew.

His relatives were not so lucky. They were forced to join the jihadists as they retreated towards a nearby railway station which Iraqi forces captured Tuesday.

"They were human shields for the jihadists," says Khalaf, a man in his thirties with greying hair. "A plane came. There was a strike."

"I've lost my two brothers, my nephew, my cousins... a whole family -- 21 people," he says.

"When we went to retrieve the bodies, the jihadists fired mortars at us. We couldn't get them out until the Iraqi security forces arrived," Khalaf says.

It could not be independently confirmed that the raid had taken place or whether it was carried out by Iraqi or coalition aircraft.

- 'Dead inside' -

The six old carts draw to a halt and line up side by side in a muddy field. Some men burst into tears, others scream in despair.

"It was a very violent strike. Two houses were reduced to dust," says Shehab Ahmad.

He cries as he kisses a little girl with light brown hair who was lying on one of the carts. He sits head in hands, his face lowered to the ground.

His wife and their son Ahmad, three and a half years old, were killed in the raid. He and his three young daughters survived.

A man with thick black hair and wrinkles around his eyes, he was in a third building that was spared.

"I feel dead inside," he says, tapping a hand on his chest.

Among the carts, Rayan Khalaf huddles in the arms of a relative. He cannot hold back his tears as he blurts out incomprehensible remarks.

He rises and kisses the bodies one by one.

"Where's Younes? Here's Younes. A kiss from your mother, a kiss from your grandmother," he says.

An imposing flat-backed military truck arrives. Black and beige body bags are retrieved from an ambulance and one by one, the bodies are wrapped.

"This is my brother," Rayan Khalaf says, struggling to carry a body in his arms. He refuses to be helped.

"This is Younes," Ziad Khalaf tells his father.

The old man stands by his side, a grey coat over his black gown and a traditional kuffiyeh scarf on his head, holding a thick pile of green ID cards.

He leafs through each one carefully before placing it on a body.