IT seems like an age since our last documentary Pictures From Afghanistan premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival (GFF) in 2019. Since then, the world has been turned upside down, with both a pandemic and now a war in Ukraine the likes of which Europe has not witnessed since the Second World War.

I can’t help but feel that our latest film, Pictures From Iraq scheduled to ­premiere today at the GFF, has taken on a new resonance and poignancy in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Iraq and its people are sadly all too familiar with what Ukrainians are ­experiencing right now. They know what it’s like to suffer loss, hardship and pain because of war.

For decades now at various times ­Iraqis have experienced the ­destruction of their cities and communities and been on the sharp end of an invading army’s attempt to bludgeon them into submission.

As my Iraqi photographer colleague and friend Ali Al-Baroodi tells me in the film as we scour what he calls the “Ground Zero” of the old town in his home city of Mosul, Iraq has been ­subjected to a seemingly endless cycle of violence and terror. Indeed, Ali’s entire life since the day he was born has played out in the shadow of war.

Yet, remarkably, he remains upbeat despite having lived under the horrors of the Islamic State (IS) group who occupied Mosul for three years.

“I keep photographing because we need to witness. Photography is healing, and most importantly is telling,” Ali ­explains to me in the film. What follows are a few of my own photographs and the stories behind them that I too hope help tell a little of what war means for those caught up in its throes.


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EVERY one of the women who join the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK) know that to return to Iran would mean certain death. All are effectively in exile and refer to the region of Iran as Rojhelat, instead of Iranian Kurdistan.

In joining the fight for a Kurdish homeland, the authorities in Tehran regard them as “terrorists”.

Sarbakho and Atusa are two of the women among scores that I was to meet at a mountain camp where daily they undergo firearms, fitness, and hand-to-hand combat training.

“I have seen frontline combat against both IS and Hashd al-Shaabi, and seen comrades die for our cause,” Atusa tells me. The Hashd al-Shaabi, group she referred to are often seen as Iranian proxies in Iraq and as such are as much an enemy of PAK as the jihadists of IS.

“This is our life, we have given everything for the fight for a Kurdish homeland,” says Sarbakho, who goes on to explain that many of the women have their families with them here in the camp and adjacent compound where they all live together.


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THEIR faces said it all, a tableau of fear, confusion, and exhaustion. They had come here to the outskirts of the Kurdish town of Makhmour, southeast of Mosul, with only what they could carry. These were lives distilled into a few bulging holdalls and carrier bags and their future remained uncertain.

“It’s like being in prison, you cannot move, it’s like a psychological war the way the Islamic State fighters’ control everything,” one man told me of life in the city under the jihadists. He fretted as his wife, with their tiny daughter in her lap, sat in the shade of a ramshackle tarpaulin tent strewn with litter and other filth with the few biscuits and little water they had been given on arrival at this crossing point.

His two-year-old daughter’s, name he told me was Farha. In Arabic, Farha means “happy occasion” or “joyous time” but there was only worry for this family as to what lay ahead for their daughter.


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IT’S an apocalyptic scene. One where the level of destruction before me I still find hard to process despite years of photographing cities ravaged by war. Making it even more eerie is that Mosul’s old town devastation sits barely a few hundred yards from the cacophony of sound to be found in the nearby bazaar that is slowly coming back to life. More than five years after the end of the epic battle to liberate the city from IS, local civil defence teams are still unearthing the remains of those who lie beneath the pancaked buildings. Here and there the presence of IS graffiti too remains as a sinister reminder of the barbarous and cruel occupation that the jihadists inflicted on citizens here.

This is the reality of what real weapons of mass destruction can do, not the fictitious version that the US and UK used to justify their invasion of Iraq back in 20003.

“Here is the alleyway the I call “ground zero,” my photographer friend and colleague Ali Al-Baroodi tells me as he takes me on a tour of the rubble-strewn streets of the old town.


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HE stood there with a determination and defiance in his eyes. I never did find out his name or age. Around him were thousands of his fellow Kurds who back then in 1991 were once again enduring the wrath of Saddam Hussein’s army.

In fear they had fled into the mountains near the Turkish border, where US troops had launched what they dubbed Operation Provide Comfort intended to ensure humanitarian relief, but in the end the American operation seemed more like a containment deployment rather than being aimed at bringing help. Having been encouraged by Washington to revolt against Saddam, the Kurds were then effectively abandoned. It was not the first – and likely not be the last – time the Kurds were let down by the west.

There is a Kurdish proverb that says they have “no friends but the mountains”. On this occasion many again perished as neither the mountains nor the west provided respite from the ravages of Saddam’s army.


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THE column of armoured vehicles and men snaked across the desert at dawn on October 20, 2016. It was the biggest military offensive so far in the battle to liberate Mosul from the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, who for years had made the city the capital of their self- proclaimed caliphate in Iraq.

The advance from the village of Nawaran and the towns of Bashiqa and Bartella, would mark the most significant military step yet on the long, bloody road to Mosul. Ahead for these men lay many dangers in the shape of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide car bombs that came hurtling across the dusty waste towards them.

It would be many months of fierce street-by-street fighting before Iraq’s second-largest city was freed from the grip of the jihadists. The human cost would prove immense.


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THE landscape itself was worthy of such a sinister presence. It was a bleak, parched, forbidding place, the track up which we journeyed engulfing us in dust. Once on top, ensconced behind sandbagged fortifications and surrounded by mortar emplacements, Kurdish peshmerga leader General Sirwan Barzani explained the lie of the land beneath us.

He explained how hundreds of Islamic State fighters were active in the terrain below, setting roadside bombs, or setting up fake checkpoints dressed as Kurdish policemen or security forces before kidnapping locals for ransom.

“This is the Tora Bora of Iraq,” Barzani explained, referring to the cave complex in eastern Afghanistan which Osama bin Laden’s own jihadist fighters of al-Qaeda had made their own last redoubt. Two weeks after my visit, Barzani’s peshmerga clashed with IS in the area losing 10 men and a local Kurdish policeman who the jihadists beheaded.

Pictures From Iraq premieres today at the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) at 1.15pm as part of the Glasgow Film Festival (GFF) and the screening will be followed by an audience Q&A with David Pratt. Tickets are available at the GFT box office or online at the GFF website