Mosul like stepping back into World War I for Kiwi Red Cross nurse (Video)
Even for aid workers, all bets are off when you're dealing with jihadist group Islamic State.
Rolands Selis, a nurse with the Red Cross, has worked in conflict zones from South Sudan to Ethiopia, treating casualties from all sides.
But during his most recent stint with the International Committee for the Red Cross in Mosul, the divide was absolute. Isis waged a brutal war targeting civilians, hospitals and medical personnel. Everybody was a target.
For Selis, 62, bombs, snipers and booby traps were a part of every day life.
The Kiwi nurse has spent the past three months in Iraq's second-largest city working with a mobile surgical team treating up to 40 patients a day, most of them civilian casualties of a grinding battle.
He was never far from the chaos that has blighted Mosul since Isis took control of the city in June 2014 as his team followed the ever-moving frontline.
It was not unusual to see rockets flying overhead and landing a few kilometres away. Then it would simply be a matter of waiting for the casualties to arrive, he says at his Karori home in Wellington, a week after his return to New Zealand and just days after the city was liberated.
"It was a war zone. There were explosions going off, rockets being fired into the city.
"We heard guns and artillery going off all the time. I would often think that the shooting I heard was producing the wounded that would be arriving very soon.
"It all becomes quite normal. The culture shock hits when you come home, when you see the normality of life compared with war."
Selis was on the ground when the first mustard gas cases flooded into their makeshift hospital in March.
Like the rest of the world, he was shocked to see chemical warfare being waged.
It was like stepping back into World War I, he says.
Many of the wounded he treated were victims of snipers hidden above the labyrinth of alleyways in Mosul's Old City.
Some survived; often they did not.
"I saw people come in with gunshot wounds and then I'd see them go out in a body bag.
"It's a fact of life. It's war. People get killed. You're shocked by what's going on in the beginning but you get used to it. It starts to feel normal. It is an inhuman thing, war, but there are a lot of wars going on and that's the way it is."
Others victims were injured by car bombs triggered as they walked by, as were kids who had innocently played with booby trapped boxes.
Even the hospitals were not off limits to Isis.
Selis had heard stories of a hospital in Mosul where a box of tissues had been booby trapped.
He could not be sure if that was true, but there were, and probably still are, many booby traps in and around the city, he says. The war might be over but danger still lurks.
Most shocking of all was the way Isis targeted ambulances.
"We treated an ambulance driver for minor injuries. A few hours later he came back in a body bag. His ambulance was blown up. That really got me.
"Ambulances are holy anywhere. You'd think they were off-limits but not there.
"Everybody was a target in the eyes of Islamic State. We had people who were shot in the back as they were fleeing the city. It was pretty shocking."
The only sign of mercy was an Islamic State-run hospital where they would treat both their own military and the civilians they had wounded – an oasis of humanity.
Selis was born in England to his Latvian father and German mother. At 10 he moved to Berlin where he lived until he emigrated to New Zealand in 1978. He had trained as a nurse in Germany as a way to see the world.
He's 62 but looks 40. In a break from nursing he trained in leathercraft and has made leather props for a handful of Hollywood films.
Offering a sweet treat, he talks of his fondness for baking. He never travels anywhere without yeast and a baking tin for bread.
Selis worked in Sierra Leone treating victims of the ebola outbreak of 2014 and again in 2015. They were tough missions, requiring three layers of protective gear in 40 degree Celsius temperatures.
He recalls treating one child while the boy's mother looked on over a barrier.
"We turned the child over for a procedure and when we turned him back he was dead. His mother saw this. As she ran away screaming I just held on to this child's hand."
Stints in South Sudan and Afghanistan followed before he headed to Iraq in February this year.
The irony that the only injury he has suffered came when he fell off a bike on holiday is not lost on Selis, who works at Wellington Hospital in between missions.
That's the funny thing, he says. Anything can happen, in war and in peace.
The battle for Mosul
- Islamic State took control of the Iraqi city in June 2014
- The 267-day battle to retake it began in October 2016.
- More than 2400 civilians were killed and 920,000 displaced, many fleeing only with what they could carry. Entire neighbourhoods fled the city, seeking refuge in relief camps around Mosul. Many had witnessed the deaths of family and neighbours.
- Reports from the United Nations are a brutal catalogue of violence: Civilians shot and thrown into a river to spread terror among other residents; people forcibly moved by Isis from one town to another being shot for lagging behind; civilians being used as human shields.
- Large areas of the city have been left in ruins; the 845-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque was blown up last month. The Iraqi army blamed Isis for its destruction and the armed group claimed it was the result of a US-led coalition air raid.
- The UN estimates rebuilding the city could cost upwards of $1 billion.
Sunday Star Times