The Horrors of War


It's there again and again.
As if from nowhere.
This smell in my nose.
This sickening melange of dust, cordite, smoke and decaying corpses.
The smell of war and death.
With it come the images. 

Torn apart houses, burst open, revealing their insides.
Refrigerators, bathtubs, chairs, shoes, bedspreads and children's toys - spread out like vomit in front of their ruins.
Steel deformed to the grotesque. Cars and trucks, torn apart in craters or on the roadside. On the roof of a house lies the severed cab of a pickup truck.

Parts of people.
Fresh corpses, decaying bodies and rotting skeletons.

A woman.

Struck down with three well-aimed shots to the head.
She lies on her back.
A soldier cut the wires of her explosives belt.
She was going to blow herself up. And take us with her to her senseless death. The soldiers leave her lying there, we have to hurry. A few more crossings until the next checkpoint.
Hardly any cover, snipers could be lurking everywhere.
When we walk back in the early evening, the woman is still lying there. But in the meantime they have also discovered the starving street dogs. I can only watch for a moment, then I fight nausea.

We walk attentively through the narrow alleys of the old city of Mosul. Paying attention to every footstep. The sweet sticky smell of corpses omnipresent. But more intense in some places than others. A sign of how many bodies still lie under the rubble. Hundreds. Thousands.

I step on something, it cracks, I wince and look down at the ground. The forearm bone of an almost skeletonized corpse. The back of the skull is missing, a small hole in the front of the forehead.


The soldiers around me laugh.

"Daesh," one says. The corpse was an IS fighter, he wants me to understand. The soldier offers me a cigarette. I decline with thanks. I don't smoke.
And under no circumstances do I want to take off the perfumed shemag that I have tied in front of my mouth and nose. The beastly stench nevertheless penetrates the green-black textile.
Sticky it runs into my nose. I try to breathe through my mouth, I immediately feel sick, I continue to breathe through my nose in disgust.

I remember a similar situation in Afghanistan. Jeeps riddled with bullets, hair, bone splinters, blood and brain matter in the cabs. Remnants of Afghan soldiers who were ambushed by the Taliban. For several days, the vehicles stood in the blazing sun. The smell of decay was too much.

My eyes begin to water a little as I approach the ruin behind the corpse. The stench intensifies.
I look questioningly back at the soldiers; they are still laughing.
"Many Daesh," one shouts, "many Daesh, many smell!"
He translates his joke for his comrades, who are bawling somewhat exaggeratedly.

I don't find it funny at all.
Still, I laugh along.
Among all those tough guys, I don't want to seem too soft.

A woman.
Struck down with well-aimed shots to the head.

And then, horror unfolds.


A murmur that slowly grows louder.
Muffled screams and voices.
Like in the bathtub when you have your head under water.
Except for the screams.
For a moment, I'm disoriented.
No more than a few seconds.
But it feels longer.

The explosion of the air-to-ground missile was enormous, the bang deafening. Where a house stood a moment ago is now a gaping, smoking crater. I am with a group of Iraqi soldiers. They used lasers to target the house where IS fighters were holed up. An Iraqi gunship took care of the rest. You will hardly find any remains of the IS fighters. And if they are, they will simply be left lying around. Who would be interested in a foot or a thumb of a jihadist?

"Target neutralized," that's what it's called in military parlance.
One of the soldiers grumbles, dust and plaster having fallen on his sandwich. The rest of the platoons sit exhausted on the floor with blank stares. Only one of them takes a selfie, his index and middle fingers forming a V, the sign for victory.

But there is not much sign of victory, even though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had proclaimed the liberation of the city from the Islamic State a few hours earlier. IS had been defeated and driven out of Mosul.

But here I am now, hearing salvos from assault rifles, individual shots from snipers, shells and rockets hitting the ground. Suicide bombers are still blowing themselves up.

So this is what liberation sounds like, I think to myself, while back home in Germany, interest in the conflict in Iraq is already waning again.

Two weeks later, I am back in Munich.
"I'm sorry to be so withdrawn at the moment. It's kind of tedious. And I don't want to annoy anyone with my weird mood," I type meekly on Whatsapp.
A few minutes a ping: "No problem, just get in touch when you feel like it. Take care."

"Weird mood," an euphemism for incipient depression. My regular corporate job takes over completely, and I'm grateful for that. Because it's not so easy to cope with thoughts of There in the Here.

For a few years I managed to.
But this time is different.
In the end, I only put off what had to happen at some point: the impact of discrepancy lived through again and again. Ultimately, I would come closer and closer to this one, this somehow indeterminable point. That point where you should stop if you want to continue to function as a normal human being at home. Because at some point, in my case sooner rather than later, the repeatedly experienced discrepancy between there and here will be too much:
You become numb.
Or you break.

The difference of realities that can no longer be bridged. At least not just like that.
Not for me. The separation of emotions requires too much discipline. Alone, I can no longer manage the necessary look forward.

So I look down, into the abyss that stares at me impassively.

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."

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