Memoir — From the September 2017 issue

All the Last Wars

Around the world with the Goya of conflict photography

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There were no civilian cars on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, last December, when the veteran war photographer Don McCullin and I hitched a ride in an Iraqi Army pickup. A few children smiled and flashed V signs at us, but the adults’ stares betrayed hostility or, at best, caution. If Islamic State fighters returned, anyone seen consorting with the army would be punished.

The soldiers took us to an abandoned house in Hay Tahrir (“Liberation Quarter”), a working-class neighborhood in the northeast. Islamic State fighters had only recently been expelled from the area. A blanket was tacked up over the doorway, and daylight came in through the mortar holes in the walls. We dropped onto the dirty floor, folding our legs bedouin-style. The soldiers offered us tea, which had been brewing on a gas burner.

A refugee in Mosul, Iraq, November 2016. All photographs © Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

The Iraqis asked McCullin how old he was. Eighty-one, he said. Did he have children? Four boys and a girl. One soldier asked permission to marry his daughter. McCullin told him he couldn’t afford the dowry. After more banter, the soldiers agreed to let us stay the night and go with them to the front in the morning.

A few minutes later, an Iraqi Army Humvee screeched up to the building, and an officer ordered us to accompany him to a forward command post. The brass had discovered that we were in town without permission. Just a month earlier, the Iraqi Army had been welcoming journalists, boasting of victories against the militants, but there was no boasting now. It was the wrong time to be covering the Battle of Mosul.

A mother and daughter near Checkpoint Charlie, West Berlin, August 1961

The Humvee tore over fields and potholed roads littered with stonework from demolished houses, and brought us to a street lined with lavish villas. A massive, armored military truck blocking the street’s entrance reversed to let us through and then resumed its position — it was there to keep out suicide bombers. Inside a clean single-story house, Major Salam, a media officer for the Special Operations Forces, demanded to know how we had entered Hay Tahrir. We admitted that his men had brought us, and attempted to convince him of the public’s right to know what was going on. The major was unimpressed and ordered us out of the city.

We were climbing into the Humvee when a soldier rushed out and hustled us back into the villa — a suicide bomber was heading our way. There was an eerie silence as we awaited the all clear, and then a massive explosion. Blast waves ripped through the air, rattling the windows. McCullin, who had photographed Vietnam, Biafra, and twenty other wars, told me he had never heard a detonation like it. A soldier explained that it was a double blast — rocket and car bomb. McCullin wanted to photograph the burning car, but the soldiers would not let him near.

I looked at McCullin. He was furious. Until that moment, he had been as thrilled as a teenager on his first date. That was his usual mood in this kind of situation. I had seen it before: with Eritrean guerrillas in 1975, Palestinian commandos in 1976, Kurdish peshmerga fighters in 1991 and 2003, and Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen in 2015. A makeshift barracks was his milieu.

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was the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993. His latest book, Syria Burning, was reissued in 2016 by Verso.

 

is a photographer based in Somerset, England. His three-volume monograph Irreconcilable Truths was published last year by Provocateur Press.

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