What the frontline near the Isis stronghold of Mosul looks like

A Peshmerga 14.5mm ZPU-2 overlooks the Iraqi town of Gwer. Photo / Thomas Gibbons-Neff
A Peshmerga 14.5mm ZPU-2 overlooks the Iraqi town of Gwer. Photo / Thomas Gibbons-Neff

The Peshmerga call it the Hill of the Doshka, named after the first heavy machine gun that once overlooked this lazy bend in the Great Zab river and the town below where the Kurds fought Saddam Hussein's army in 2003.

Now the hill is taller, built up by excavators to fight the Islamic State and fortified with cinderblocks and sandbags and tin roofs. There is a TV now, wired to a satellite dish, and the Doskha is gone-replaced by a larger twin barrel anti-aircraft gun pointed towards the caliphate. When the weapon fires, it barks, and the shell casings are collected and wedged into the outpost's walls and the fighters hang their Kalashnikovs from them.

It's a Sunday and the Peshmerga have just finished lunch and their first tea. The TV is playing American music videos and the summer hit "Get Lucky" from the band Daft Punk is on. The DJ is having a hard time saying the band's name when the first mortar lands.

The impact is a few hundred meters away near another Peshmerga position at the base of the hill. Smoke and debris drift south with the wind and the fighters on the Hill of the Doshka quickly slip on boots and sandals-waiting for the next attack. When the second mortar hits, a Peshmerga fighter says he can see where the Islamic State is firing from: a patch of trees on the far bank.

Muhkils Hamad watches one of his puppies eat dinner near the Peshmerga's front vs. the Islamic State in Iraq. Photo / Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post
Muhkils Hamad watches one of his puppies eat dinner near the Peshmerga's front vs. the Islamic State in Iraq. Photo / Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post

Minutes later there is the low growl of two coalition aircraft, but nothing happens - just the steady drone of their engines until they fade into the distance. The rest of the afternoon is quiet and around sunset a cold wind picks up out of the West. It blows the dust into a haze around the rising moon and whips the Kurdish flag that hangs over the outpost into a tense fury.

At night the hill is quiet. There is just the wind and the coughing of the fighters on watch. There are lights around the hill to deter night raids that were once frequent in the months that followed the beginning of the war. There are no night raids tonight, just men smoking cigarettes and standing watch. On the hour they wake up their replacements, because that is what war looks like: tired soldiers opening tired eyes, propping themselves on their rifles and rubbing their faces as they walk into cold nights.

War is also walking long distances from wherever you're sleeping to urinate. The bathroom is a hole in the ground sheltered by a hut on the back of the hill. In the heat of the day it breathes the smell of urine and in the cold of the night it is a warm place to stand out of the wind.

Near the bathroom are three stray puppies that huddle around each other for warmth. They have no names and the Peshmerga say their mother died some days ago. One of the fighters named Muhklis, feeds them after the men take their meals. He breaks the chicken bones down and puts the rice into small piles just outside the edge of the base.

Two of the dogs eat, while one does not because she seems sick. Muhklis says snipers shoot near the puppies from time to time but he says it with a smile and so he smokes his hand-rolled cigarettes and plays with his dogs.

- Washington Post

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