Adnan Sarwar arrived in Iraq in 2003 as a 24-year-old soldier with the British army. He initially viewed his mission as liberating the country’s people from Saddam Hussein, but when parts of the population turned against the allied forces, Adnan’s life was changed forever by an ambush which killed one of his friends in the army. He saw first-hand how driving Saddam from power led to more violence and ultimately the creation of Isis. Now, with Isis gone, Adnan is returning to Iraq to discover the country afresh, beyond the headlines and wars to meet everyday people rebuilding their lives. Travelling the length of the country from the snowy mountains in the north, he visits oil-rich territories still contested by different factions in the country, cities which bore the brunt of Isis’s reign of terror and the allied bombing raids against them, the country’s capital Baghdad and finally the southern marshes and deserts where he served with the army. Along the way he makes friends, comes face-to-face with old enemies and asks if the country can ever escape its cycle of violence.
Adnan’s journey begins in Kurdistan as he accompanies the Kurdish Peshmerga militia on a very special convoy up to Mount Gara. He is with animal activist Blen Brifkani to witness the release of two brown bears, previously held in captivity, back into the wild. Brown bears are native to the mountains, but hunting and habitat loss mean there are hardly any left – and Blen wants to change that. Leaving Kurdistan, Adnan enters Mosul, which was held for three brutal years by Isis – also known as Daesh. Nearly 10,000 homes in the city were destroyed by 1,250 airstrikes, Isis bombs and street fighting in the battle to regain Mosul. He joins British and Iraqi members of a mine clearance team dealing with the terrible legacy left by Isis. Thirty-three mine-clearers have been killed since Isis left and the UN estimates it will take ten tears to remove all the bombs. But alongside the mine-clearing teams Adnan meets someone else trying to reclaim the streets – Al i Baroodi – who offers bike tours around his beloved city.
Adnan travelling in a pilgrim minibus to Iraq’s number one tourist attraction – the Holy Shrines of Kerbala. Around 14 million visitors from 60 different countries came here in 2017 for the Shia pilgrimage – Arbaeen – five times as many as attend the Hajj in Mecca, making it one of the largest gatherings anywhere on earth. Adnan joins 8,000 pilgrims at the Mosque of Imam Husayan – Shia’s holiest shrine – and something new to him as he was brought up a Sunni Muslim. Near to the shrine, Adnan visits Madinat Al Sayed Al Awsiya, one of three ‘visitor cities’ built to house the pilgrims – 11 more are under construction. It is a $70m complex of restaurants, sleeping halls, and apartments offering free food and accommodation for less well-off visitors as well as more lavish spaces to satisfy wealthier pilgrims.
Next Adnan heads to the Sunni city of Fallujah, which was a stronghold for al-Qaeda and then ISIS before they were bombed out by government forces. The government has provided very little money for rebuilding and security and it still feels like a ghost town. Adnan is here to meet Sharif, who is deaf, and his wife Intisar. They run a school for around 60 children with hearing and speech disabilities. Visiting the school, Adnan learns that while some of the pupils were born deaf, others lost their speech or hearing through physical or severe psychological trauma when the city was under ISIS control. Sharif and Intisar run the school off the little money they can get from humanitarian organisations and donors. Heading back to Baghdad, Adnan joins the production team behind one of Iraq’s most popular TV programmes, In the Grip of the Law, made by Iraqi state TV in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and Anti-Terror services. They are filming an episode taking four ISIS prisoners convicted of assisting a suicide bombing of a military checkpoint back to the scene of the attack in an area called Abu Dcheer. A key part of the show is to make prisoners look ashamed and express their remorse. But human rights groups have condemned the show and questioned whether all convicts have had a fair trial, while many Iraqis accuse the show of being anti-Sunni – claims its makers deny. Moving on, Adnan joins Dr Sabah Tamimi, a former children’s TV presenter and professor of economics and now an MP, on the campaign trail for the upcoming elections. This is the first election in which women must cast their votes themselves, rather than Iraqi men being able to vote on behalf of their own relatives. Although she is a Shia, Sabah is campaigning for votes in the Sunni majority area of Latifiyah. It involves meeting Ali Mustafa, head of the Ma’amera tribe, as with his endorsement she could gain as many as 3,000 votes.
Adnan drives on to Najaf, another Holy City, where the mosque holding the tomb of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, is situated. Shia believe that to be buried in Najaf guarantees a place in heaven, and the city is home to the biggest cemetery in the world, with over five million graves and a celebrity gravedigger – Ali al Amaya – who is a big star on social media with more than 200,000 likes on Facebook, and a well-known catchphrase. Leaving Najaf, Adnan arrives at Babylon, the oldest surviving city in the world. He’s there to meet 16-year-old Rawan Salem, who he has found through her YouTube videos. Rawan has been a political activist since she was seven. She began by uploading videos of herself criticising local politicians and since then she has been interviewed about politics on TV shows as part of her campaigning for more money for youth projects and against allegedly corrupt local politicians. She has also organised youth arts festivals to try to make Babylon a cultural centre again, and she takes Adnan to the site of the ancient city of Babylon to see its world-renowned archaeological treasures.
For the last leg of his journey south, Adnan heads into the Mesopotamian marshes, often referred to as the original Garden of Eden and home to the Marsh Arabs, to stay with Sayed Rat, his wife, six children and 30 buffalo in a modern version of the Marsh Arab mudhif, or reed house, where guests have always been made welcome. After the natural wonders of the marshes, Adnan’s final destination is Basra, where he served as a soldier during the war. As well as re-visiting the city, he is there to meet a senior lieutenant of the Mahdi Army, the brutal militia led by Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose victory in the recent General Election shocked the west.