On 22 May, Ahmed Mohsen, an unemployed taxi driver, left his house in the Islamic State-controlled western part of Mosul to try to escape across the Tigris to the government-held eastern side of the city. He and his mother, along with ten other people, carried rubber tyres down to the river: most of them couldn’t swim, and they planned to tie them together to make a raft. The siege of Mosul was in its seventh month and Ahmed was both desperate and starving: he and his mother were living on handfuls of wheat they cooked, though he said it made him feel sick. His friends believe that lack of food made him light-headed and led him to risk crossing the river. ‘Even if I die in the river,’ he told them, ‘it will be better than living here.’
IS snipers were shooting people who tried to leave. Their commanders calculated that holding the civilian population hostage, as human shields, would deter Iraqi government troops and the US-led coalition air forces from using the full extent of their firepower. This strategy had worked, to an extent, during the siege of east Mosul, which began on 17 October; it was three months before that part of the city was captured. But by the time the assault on west Mosul began on 19 February there was little sign of Iraqi or American restraint. As the bombardment intensified, the only plausible escape route for Ahmed was across the Tigris between the Fifth and Sixth Bridges, both of which had been put out of action by coalition airstrikes. He had already seen IS snipers kill three people who’d tried to cross and his luck was no better: a sniper shot him in the back and killed him, along with nine other members of his party, before they had even put their tyres in the water. Only one man, a good swimmer, got across to the other side. According to people living in houses overlooking the riverbank, Ahmed’s mother stayed beside his body for three days. Nobody dared to go to help her because they were afraid of being shot; on the third day, they say, they could no longer see her or the body of her son. They were probably thrown into the river, like hundreds of others.