Shihab Ayed and several other men struggled to push a cart carrying the bodies of his son and wife, wrapped in blankets, through a muddy ditch nearly three kilometres from their destroyed home in Mosul.
Four other carts followed, laden with days-old corpses from airstrikes which the men said had killed 21 relatives and neighbours in an area Daesh militants controlled earlier in the week, but fled when it became clear that airstrikes were inbound.
Ayed, a 40-year-old labourer, pulled back a blanket to show his only son, three-and-a-half year-old Ahmed, lying lifeless with his eyes closed and a big gash in his right cheek. Aside from losing his wife and son, he also lost three daughters as his family and life was blown apart by US and Iraqi airstrikes.
“Three houses were destroyed by two airstrikes,” Ayed said.
“Daesh fighters were firing from our house and from the road outside, and we were hiding inside. Fifteen minutes later the strikes hit,” Ayed said, in tears.
We pulled the bodies from the rubble and now we’re going to bury them. Then I’ll come back to my three remaining daughters.
The bodies had begun to smell of decay but it had only just become safe enough to leave the district, now cleared of the militants, and bring the carts to Mosul airport, where a bus might be able to take them to the nearest village for burial, he said.
A Reuters journalist counted about 15 corpses on the carts.
Mounting civilian deaths
They are among the latest victims caught in the crossfire of an intensifying battle between US and Iran-backed Iraqi forces and Daesh militants still holed up the centre of Mosul, their last major stronghold in Iraq.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the mounting civilian death toll, as Daesh fights from homes and densely-populated areas, a threat the Iraqi military and US-led coalition have been countering with heavy weaponry to support troops on the ground, rather than moving in with infantry to reduce civilian casualties.
Families fleeing Mosul in recent weeks have talked of high numbers of civilians killed by airstrikes, and said that in many cases Daesh fighters have already slipped away by the time the bombs hit.
“When the coalition see a sniper on a home, it’s five or ten minutes before that house is hit,” Mohammed Mahmoud, a 40-year-old former police officer, told Reuters in another area of Mosul.
But they don’t kill the Daesh militants. Daesh withdraw, and the strikes end up killing civilians – whole families.
Daesh’s tactics since the beginning of the offensive to drive them out of Mosul, which began in October, have been to deploy car bombs and snipers, rain shellfire on troops and residents alike and take cover among the civilian population. The Iraqi response has been to bombard entire neighbourhoods from the ground and from the air, killing hundreds of civilians they are supposed to be there to save.
On Friday, even as Ayed and his helpers waited with their carts, helicopters fired at positions in Mosul and forces further back launched Grad missiles into the city.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the fight to recapture the western half of Mosul has been “dirtier and deadlier to civilians” than the battle to retake the east, which was completed in early February.
The New York-based watchdog said Iraqi Interior Ministry units had recently used non-precision rockets in west Mosul, seemingly accusing the Iraqi government of perpetrating yet another war crime.
Their indiscriminate nature makes their use in populated civilian areas a serious violation of the laws of war.
The Iraqi interior ministry is staffed by the Badr Organisation, a militant Shia jihadist group loyal to the clerical rulers of Iran. The Badr Organisation espouse a sectarian ideology that sees most Sunnis, who are the vast majority of the civilians in Mosul, as fair targets.
Separately, the United Nations says it has received many reports of civilian deaths in airstrikes.
The number of civilians killed in the Mosul campaign – whether by Daesh or by Iraqi and coalition fire – is unclear, with various estimates given by residents, watchdogs and the military.
The US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces with airpower and military advisers admits causing “unintentional” civilian deaths.
This month the US military said the total number of civilians killed by the coalition since the start of operations against the militant group in 2014 in both Iraq and Syria was 220.
That estimate is lower than those of some monitoring groups.
Airwars, a journalist-run project to monitor civilian casualties, says at least 2,590 civilians have likely been killed by coalition “actions” since 2014, including scores in Mosul in the first week of March alone.
Coalition and Iraqi forces blame their slow progress in the Mosul campaign on their claimed care to avoid civilian deaths. However, this fails to take into account the fierce Daesh resistance and innovative tactics that they have developed that has led to the likely deaths of more than 7,000 Iraqi soldiers.
But western Mosul, which houses the narrow-alleyed Old City, has been a tougher fight, and Daesh have pinned down Iraqi forces for days on end using snipers and boobytraps in some areas without significant advances.
The level of destruction is visibly greater, with dozens of buildings flattened and large holes in roads from airstrikes.
In the wrecked Mamoun district on Tuesday, a man trudged down a muddy road in search of body bags.
Faisal Tayran, 50, explained matter-of-factly just how many loved ones he had to bury:
I have 18 bodies I need to bury – my brother’s family. They’re just lying in the garden at the moment.