In the latest episode of The Trip podcast, Sangar Khaleel talks about why he risks all to tell the story of his city.
It wasn’t a skillset that Sangar Khaleel asked for. He didn’t grow up wanting to know how to cross dozens of armed checkpoints in a day. He didn’t want to have 3,000 contacts in his phone, an endless scroll of warlords and lieutenants and freelance journalists. He didn’t set out to be NPR’s man in Mosul, helping correspondents come to his city to document all the death and destruction. But war came to Mosul, and the world would be poorer if it didn’t have Sangar and his Land Rover and his endless contact list to help make sense of what happened when ISIS took over, and to point to where Mosul is going now that they’re gone.
Fixers—those often-overlooked men and women who help arrange access and interviews and shape stories with journalists—are remarkable people, the local truth tellers without whom the professional traveling class of journalists would be even more lost than they are. And in places in conflict, it can be a dangerous job, not just in the moment, but for years and decades later. As Sangar put it in our conversation, first the bad guys might go for the foreigners, but very soon after that they’ll go for the locals who worked with the foreigners. So even though Mosul is officially liberated, there is no shortage of dead-enders and would-be assassins in the region. And they would happily make Sangar pay the price for the news we’ve gotten from there over the years, for his very evolved, and unexpected, skillset.
This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Sangar. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: All right, good. Let’s get this set. You have a seat. I’m going to grab some two delicious Life Waters.
Sangar Khaleel: Thank you man. Life Water here in Iraq makes you hate life, because it does not open like a soft drink.
Thornburgh: L’Chaim. To life. To Ramadan. It’s the first day of Ramadan.
Khaleel: It’s the first day. That’s why I’m so happy I am going to Syria, because there is no Ramadan there, actually. Ramadan doesn’t exist.
Thornburgh: It’s a land without God at this point.
Thornburgh: Ramadan is about social and family expectations too, right? So you have to do a lot of virtuous-looking stuff this month.
Khaleel: Ramadan is all about families gathering. They find reasons to gather, especially now. My wife’s parents are moving to Erbil, so it’s a good excuse for all of them to come along and gather.
Thornburgh: And just watch you and see if you’re doing right—
Khaleel: If I’m drinking.
Thornburgh: If you’re doing right by their granddaughter and by their daughter?
Khaleel: Yeah. No, they love me. They love me.
Thornburgh: Of course they love you. But you don’t want to test it by showing up with a bunch of whiskey on the breath.
Thornburgh: It is interesting, because I think among people in the States who are not around a lot of Muslim populations, there’s some sort of a black-and-white view about Ramadan, and really all of the laws that go with Islam. Just that idea of, do you eat pork? Do you not eat pork? They must never do this stuff.
Khaleel: Don’t drink. Don’t smoke in public.
Thornburgh: Yeah. In a way that I think would be actually very familiar to people back home, Jews or Christians. You make it up with what works for you. It’s your own menu, a la carte of godliness and sinfulness that everybody puts together.
Khaleel: It’s just one month of the year, man, it’s very boring. For me, it’s boring. People wait the entire year for Ramadan. I don’t.
Everyone is a victim of religion, especially here in Iraq.
Thornburgh: So it sounds like you have a little touch of dread about Ramadan.
Khaleel: Yeah. Nobody has seen the other life, and everyone is doing something for that life, and I really don’t believe in it.
Thornburgh: Who does know? Who’s come back from that and said, “Yeah, good idea guys. Totally worth it.”
Khaleel: To be honest, my job changed a lot of things of my life.
Khaleel: One of them was this. I was one of the best Koran readers in my neighborhood in Mosul, so after going and interviewing all these religious people, [seeing] what religion has done to this world, I started to lose my trust towards religion, to be honest. Because everyone is a victim of religion, especially here in Iraq. This is my idea. I’m sure 95% of Iraqis are not going to agree with me, but the truth is the truth.
Thornburgh: I wonder how they process it, because when you say it, that makes such perfect sense to me on some level. You are from Mosul, which had just been in this death battle with people who thought they were the holiest dudes that ever lived. It was the caliphate, and they thought God was on their side. That anybody would just say, “Oh, well, once we defeat those guys, then God is cool again,” then the idea makes sense.
Khaleel: At the end, when I saw the dead bodies on the street, I said, “Where are you man? Are you in the other life?” Who knows? Nobody knows. You’re just rotting here on the ground and this is what you fought for, this is what you did. That’s why I said, “No, fuck no.”
Thornburgh: Those guys, the people who faced certain death at the end and certainly dealt a lot of death on their own, did horrible things. God’s got to be very far from that.
I feel like we’ve kind of jumped a line in talking about the Mosul that God had forsaken. Because I want to get to the prior Mosul, and to start there and have you tell me what Mosul was like when you were growing up. Just paint a picture of that town.
Khaleel: Mosul was the town every single Iraqi dreams of. Even Baghdad dreamed of being like Mosul. For example, all the development you see in Erbil, in Duhok, in Kurdistan, almost everyone was coming to Mosul to study. I was living in a very poor neighborhood. I didn’t know what sectarianism was, nobody knew what sectarianism was, what is this minority and that minority, what is this and that religion, so it was a very nice city. But the problems in Mosul started after 2003.
Thornburgh: Yeah. So you were growing up in the 90s?
Khaleel: I was born in 1989, I was growing in the 1990s.
Thornburgh: So this would’ve been the 1990s under Saddam in Mosul where there were problems, but they were more economic problems…
Khaleel: There were so many problems, but I was a kid, I didn’t understand all these things. I was just enjoying it, until we moved. I moved properly from Mosul in 2006, but I was always going back there. I still have so many friends there, some relatives and cousins, the soccer team I was playing with. They’re still there. I was going there until 2010 and then most of my very close, close relatives, like my grandfathers, moved from Mosul, and then I stopped going.
The old generations of Iraq saw war after war, so there’ll be always stories to tell and to show.
Thornburgh: They moved, and part of what’s crazy about coming to Iraq now. I’d been cleaning out my apartment back in New York and saw some journal that I kept after September 11th, like September 12th, 2001, I’d written some stuff. It was just: “This is terrible, but also, it looks like we’re going to start bombing Afghanistan, which makes no sense to me and I don’t understand what is happening there.” I wrote, “At least I hope that it’s quick and whatever stupidness, however Bush needs to express himself will be over quickly,” which, reading it 18 years later, when we’re still at war there, [we know] it’s not just one conflict that started in 2003. How many wars, how many different phases?
Khaleel: That’s why I like my work. That’s one of the reasons I never quit my job. Because so many journalists ask me, “How long are you going to do this?” I’ve lived just 30 years so far. I saw 2003, 2006, 2010, 2014, and I don’t know what else is coming. I hope something good.
Thornburgh: After these five, something real good’s going to happen?
Khaleel: Yeah. If I go back, the old generations of Iraq saw war after war, so that’s why there’ll be always stories to tell and to show.
Thornburgh: How long had your family been in Mosul?
Khaleel: I was born in Mosul. My father, they’re from the Nineveh Plains actually, they were born in the Nineveh Plains. Outside of Mosul City.
Thornburgh: Yeah, yeah. So that’s where they had been since time immemorial.
Thornburgh: Where did you go? Did you come straight to Erbil after moving from Mosul? Where did most people go?
Khaleel: No, we went to a town, a small town between Erbil and Duhok. Then in 2010, after I finished my high school there, it was very difficult for me because of going from Arabic to Kurdish, which is totally different. I lost almost three years failing and failing because there was no Arabic school in that town, and I had to go to Duhok and it was costing me a lot. So I had to continue studying in Kurdistan.
Then in 2010, I moved to Erbil. My parents had given me only $25 for a week, because I was from a very poor family. For transportation, food, dormitory, and all these things. Then I had to find myself a part-time job, which was taking a lot of time for a very small amount of money. One of my university friends called me and said, “Hey man, I have two journalists, they want to do a story about some Arab fighters. You speak Arabic, English, and Kurdish? Can you take them there?” I took them there. I didn’t know anything about journalism, anything. We stayed three days, we came back, they paid me triple my salary. I said, “This is fucking good.”
I called my friend and said, “They paid me this amount of money, is it true?” He said, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “Hey, if you have any other journalists, just let me know.”
Thornburgh: “I’m now in the market.”
Khaleel: Yeah. “What is this job called?” He said, “It’s a fixer.” Then I had to go back to my dormitory and search for fixing. What’s fixing? What does a fixer do?
Thornburgh: What year was this?
Thornburgh: How about that first assignment, so it was going to interview fighters, you were driving toward danger presumably.
Khaleel: I was lucky, because I was with two very experienced journalists. I thought, “Why am I here? Why me among all the students in my university? Why me among all young English and Arabic speakers in Erbil?” This was another thing I was thinking about, and it was good. It was very good. I liked the guys there, they’re still my friends. The other reason I like my job is, they’re my friends. I have made more than 10,000 friends. Because it’s not boring. It’s not sitting at a table, you have your laptop, same table, same laptop, same chair every day. Every day, you do a different story, different people, different contacts, it’s good. That’s why I like it.
Thornburgh: The idea of driving toward conflict. Conflict was chasing you and your family, everybody up here, for many years. Was there any part of you that thought, “I don’t know if I should” or “Why am I going towards the shooting when I should be leaving?”
Khaleel: Driving towards the conflict is so weird, you always think, but once you get there, the first 30 minutes is just, Why am I here. After that, it becomes fun, actually, but you don’t know when it happens.
Thornburgh: You’re not sure when it’s going to flip the switch?
Thornburgh: You’re like, “All right, I’m waiting for this to be fun.”
Khaleel: Because always I think, “How come I’m still alive?” Because a guy a few centimeters away from me got shot and not me. I thought, “If they give me $10,000 US a day, I’m not coming back here again.”
Some days we had to cross 34 or 36 checkpoints to reach the front line. Sometimes not even the front line, behind the front line, staying in the base or in people’s houses, because there was always front line and second line. Staying in the second line to go to the front line the day after. So we couldn’t do a story in one day most of the time, because the roads were all broken, so we were staying, for example, for one week or 10 days and coming back. On the way there was a little shop there serving beer, in a Christian town. They always had a small table. I was parking there having a beer on the table, like Heineken, all the time with my journalists, and then—
Thornburgh: Heineken all the time?
Khaleel: Yeah. There were buses of IDPs, they just came out of the Islamic State, they were coming right up close to us and they see beer on the table. One was telling the other one, “Hey, look man, look at the window.” Everyone was staring at us through the window—beer.
Thornburgh: You might as well have been standing naked on the road or fornicating. Yeah.
Khaleel: Yeah, actually after few months of doing the same thing, I had a British photographer with me, he was like, “It’s Heineken time man.” Yeah, he was like, “Man, this is not the Heineken, this is the Heinneken.” It was double N or triple N. Yeah, it was fake Heineken he was having.
Thornburgh: It’s too many Ns. Oh my God, that is a definite nightmare scenario, you look down at your beer and find out that there’s Ns on your Heineken. I like the idea of just sort of showing the caliphate, “Hey guys, were you having a good time back there? Was that working out for you?”
Khaleel: Yeah. It was most of them. Most of them, they were thinking, “Oh, I need a drink. I need that drink,” when they were coming out. It’s another reason I like my work. You’re one of the first guys to go to the things happening. For example, you’re the first one who goes to an ISIS base, an ISIS house. You see this liberated area and you show it to the world. When you are in the front line, the civilians are coming, they have to take off their clothes, because maybe they carry suicide belts. So they come and say, “I just need a drink, man.” This is what they were thinking, some of them. They were so happy, people in Mosul, they were so happy for being liberated. It’s not like Syria nowadays.
Thornburgh: What is it like reporting specifically on Mosul, on your hometown? Obviously, nobody would ever have wanted to be a conflict journalist in their own hometown. Did it feel that different, or did it end up being the same as reporting in other parts of the region where you’ve been fixing at war?
Khaleel: Working in Mosul, if you’re away from fixing, if you come back after one week so many things have changed. You have to know everything. So you have to know what’s going on in all the front lines, in each street. In Mosul, I was so happy. The first picture I took of liberating Mosul, which is my WhatsApp picture now, I carried two bags of beer.
Thornburgh: You walked in there with two bags of beers?
Khaleel: No, I found it in the shop. Yeah.
Thornburgh: You did? Somebody had buried it or something to keep it from the caliphate?
Khaleel: They burned all the beer shops, the liquor stores. I found a lot, but I carried these two [in the photograph]. So when you go into a house in Mosul, there is a good picture here, or there is a nice background for interview, this is what the journalist thinks. But for me, it’s something else: I lost that town, we lost this house, all of these people are displaced now.
Thornburgh: Right, they’re not there.
Khaleel: They’re not there. It is the heart of the city actually, not all of Mosul that’s been destroyed, but the heart has been destroyed. When the heart is destroyed, it means the whole city is destroyed. The families of Mosul are destroyed, because Mosul came out from the Old City. It was the Old City, and then families move, they become bigger and then they move, so everything is there. Everything was there, and they killed everything.
Thornburgh: Just by doing the city center in. The real heavy fighting during the liberation, you were coming in with other journalists on the front line, but then there was a moment when you got to see it for the first time, is that right? There was a day that you would’ve gone in? The first time you saw the inside of the center city?
Khaleel: The fighting was going on for almost six months, more or less, around the city, there were lots of villages and small towns to liberate. Yeah, the first war I saw was with the first neighborhoods of Mosul from the east side. We went in with the Golden Division [Iraqi Special Operations Forces] and there was heavy fighting. I saw so much fighting also before that, but in the city, in those two neighborhoods was the first time I saw heavy fighting, like incoming bullets.
Thornburgh: When you got there, by seeing what had happened in the outskirts and what it looked like to those towns, were you prepared for what you found?
Khaleel: I was thinking it will be just like walking and liberating, walking and liberating. This is what I was ready for. The only thing I was thinking about is IEDs. I didn’t know ISIS doesn’t want to lose its first territory or neighborhoods, to not affect the other neighborhoods, to not affect the other ISIS members. They fought heavily. There was big fighting. I lost some new friends.
Thornburgh: When you think particularly about ISIS and people who are now coming out and are now in IDP camps and so on after they were thrown out of their territory, how do you feel about them, your average ISIS foot soldier?
Khaleel: There was only one advantage. After ISIS was defeated, it helped Mosul become clean. Because for years, whoever had this terrorism ideology joined ISIS, and people in Mosul were hating ISIS. They’re so helpful with the security troops now, the people, so Mosul is clean of those terrorist things.
Thornburgh: So the backlash to ISIS is the best thing about ISIS?
Thornburgh: Now Mosul realizes there’s no sense in doing anything except working with the government.
Khaleel: Yeah. Even if anyone thinks, now for example, the young guys, 13- or 14-year-old guys, if they think about doing something like ISIS or Al Qaeda, they will know the end will be just like ISIS.
I’ll never go back and live in Mosul again. Because foreigners are the main target, foreigners and officials, politicians, and then next the next target are the ones who worked with foreigners.
The ones who paid for this were the civilians, because they’re still displaced, their houses are destroyed, they lost members of their families, they lost memories, they’re in the camps, something they were never used to. The main pain is, they’re living in one of the richest countries in the world, displaced in their own country. This is the main pain. Iraq is rich.
Thornburgh: It’s rich.
Khaleel: It’s very shaming, asking people, asking NGOs. It’s all about bad management there.
Thornburgh: It’s rich, it’s also incredibly well-educated.
Khaleel: They don’t deserve to live in IDP camps, they deserve a better life. Everyone deserves a better life, but especially Iraqis.
Thornburgh: Especially Iraqis.
Khaleel: They’re victims of bad management and corruption.
I’ll never go back and live in Mosul again. Because foreigners are the main target, foreigners and officials, politicians, and then next target are the locals who work with foreigners. My brother and my cousins, they were working with US Army before, they were interpreters, all of them had to leave.
Thornburgh: They had to leave Mosul?
Khaleel: They had to leave Mosul. Late 2006, they started even to execute them. Kill them. Kidnap them, ask the family for money, the family pays the money, and they get the dead body back.
Thornburgh: We know this I think as a phenomenon from Afghanistan and Iraq, which is also astounding because we’ve done far less than we could and should as the United States in helping some of those people come and live in the States. To deny visas to people who helped our armed forces is insane. Just one of the many sort of cruelties of the last decade. I wonder how you feel about it in terms of your job as media, because the time that you’ve been working in media has also coincided with a huge set of problems on the media industry back home, less support. I’m sure you’ve heard much complaining. If you know anything in the world, I’m sure that you’ve heard a lot of complaining from journalists about what’s been happening with their offices back in the States. Just to say, they’re probably less able than ever to reciprocate the dangers that you’ve gone through, or make good on that. How do you look at that? What do they owe you, or is that the wrong way of looking at it?
Khaleel: First of all, we’re independent as fixers, I’m a very independent guy. I work with one journalist for a week and then I may not see him after a year, so I’m not his employee anymore. And yeah, all other journalists are like that. So they think it’s just a week I work with them. But afterwards I’m working with another one, and another one, and another one, and it’s very dangerous for me. Everyone must know that. Yes, the income of fixing is great, but still, you don’t know when you’re going to pay for it, you know what I mean?