Sajjad was the son of a soldier. His father had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. And though his father attempted to dissuade his sons from joining the military, Sajjad didn’t listen. The day after graduating high school, Sajjad was already signed up for military academy. From 2004 to 2010, he trained and fought beside American soldiers.
“I certainly miss them,” he would say in many of our interviews, remembering his U.S. counterparts fondly. (We spoke through a translator; him in Arabic, me in English.)
Perhaps this is why we got along so well. After eating our fish dinner (delicious, by the way), he spoke at length about how much he missed the camaraderie of Americans. I am no soldier, but I’d spent a few months covering Iraq in 2016, when I made a VR film covering the fight for Falluja. Sajjad had watched and appreciated it. I explained that I wanted to find someone to film who could exemplify what it meant to be a soldier in Iraq. He said, “I know just the man.”
And so my embed with Sajjad’s unit of the Emergency Response Division began.
I spent nights living with Sajjad and the 150 soldiers under his command inside the city of Mosul. The soldiers would move into an abandoned house near the front line, use generators to supply power, and bunk on the floors wherever they could find space. Every few days, they would pack up, move to a new house and begin again.
What they did, my team and I did.
Each night, the four of us — a translator, a driver, a security adviser and me — would unroll our sleeping bags and find a spot on the floor to rest. While many journalists would make day trips from the Kurdish city of Erbil, spending multiple days with the soldiers helped us gain the their trust.
They began to share jokes with us, show us pictures of their girlfriends and wives back home and invite us to share every meal.
The days were…