You can never fully appreciate the wholesale destruction of, say, a city like, until it surrounds you completely. Until it engulfs you. Until you're choking on the dust still hanging thick in the air. The unbearable 120 degree heat. The acrid, sickening smell of death, the rotting corpses of dead and civilians alike all around you.
As journalists, we fail all the time as we try to tell stories that help those who are watching see and understand what we're seeing. What it feels like to be where we are. But on this story, I think we've come closer than ever to achieving that goal. We were immersed. I hope our viewers will be too.
In Mosul, as a journalist, you remember this is all temporary. I can walk away from this. Away from the sound of explosions, the fear of triggering a roadside bomb as you walk along, the lurking snipers, the random gunfire, the destruction, the death.
The people we met and spoke to can't walk away. That collapsed building was their home. Years before they lost their homes, they began to lose any semblance of their lives as they knew them. When ISIS militants swept through parts of Iraq and Syria, residents by the hundreds of thousands were trapped inside their so-called caliphate. For most, adhering to the group's extremist methods wasn't a voluntary decision to suddenly believe in their ideologies, but a decision based on life and death.
Yes, we met some young ISIS prisoners held in detention centers who told us they were forced to fight with ISIS. That may have been the case, and if they're fighting for their freedom only a fool would admit to being unrepentant. That's not really the sense we got there. Those young men had the look of hate in their eyes. About the only regret they seemed to have is that they were caught. And if they were caught that means they surrendered. And in the zero-sum world of ISIS, there is certainly no honor in that.
But there were others we met who were clearly forced into slavery, to fight, like a 16-year-old Yazidi boy we met. He was made to convert to Islam, trained to fight by ISIS. He told us his friends -- who were mostly Muslim and mostly voluntary fighters -- gladly cheered that they would offer themselves up as suicide bombers. And if you think for a moment this is an exaggeration, consider that the Iraqi government believes upwards of 900 ISIS suicide car bombs were deployed in the fight for Mosul alone. And that takes an inexhaustible supply of suicidal drivers.
What struck me is that peer pressure element. Forget the training. He said all his friends believed in ISIS teachings and he began to believe too -- now he's sitting in an apartment, unemployed and directionless. The only thing he knows about, the only thing he's been trained to do is to distrust and kill non-believers.
It's no wonder the people we spoke to say that this region is a ticking time bomb. The first grade school books teaching children to count and tell the time -- in English -- by using timers on bombs and automatic weapons. The 28-year-old woman held as a sex slave, and her four very young children who hate and disobey her because they've been taught to. A lost generation, exposed to the very worst violence you can ever imagine, without counselling, without any sense direction, uneducated, illiterate, homeless. The ISIS we know may be facing defeat on the battlefield, but the next generation is just beginning to emerge. And those young people may pose more of a danger to the stability of this region than ever.