The only firefighters in West Mosul, Iraq, switched on the siren as they drove a battered red truck through the ruins of their city. It was the morning of April 16, and they led a small convoy along roads gouged by bombs and partially blocked by collapsed buildings. The fighting was finished in this neighborhood, and the only other vehicles around were mangled wrecks. But the siren was an old habit, and it felt good to be back at work.
The firefighters, members of what is known in Iraq as the Civil Defense, parked by a colossal crater, and their chief, 47-year-old Colonel Rabie Ibrahim Hassan, started out on foot up an unpaved side street. Skinny, square-jawed Mohammed Shabaan hurried after him, clutching a small notebook. Around a dozen other men followed, guiding a crane and frontloader almost too large to fit between the buildings.
It had rained for weeks, but the day broke dry and hot and the now-still air smelled of corpses. The men pulled cheap surgical masks or respirators over their faces as they walked. They stopped in front of a heap of concrete and metal that had once been a pink two-story house. The background of gunfire and thud of mortar shells was louder here, as Iraqi forces clawed back ground from ISIS after an almost three-year occupation. Nobody seemed to notice the noise; it had been that way for months.