Offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS highlights quiet efforts to save animals, cultural artifacts in war zones

PHOTO: An abandoned bear stands in its cage before receiving treatment from members of the international animal welfare charity "Four Paws" at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in eastern Mosul on Feb. 21, 2017.PlaySafin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Zoo animals become unintended victims of Mosul offensive

When veterinarian Amir Khalil arrived at a zoo in eastern Mosul last month, just weeks after Iraqi forces drove ISIS militants from the enclave, there was little life to be found.

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Nearly 40 animals that once inhabited the Montazah al-Morour Zoo have died. Trapped in their cages and unable to escape the conflict around them, some animals were killed in the crossfire, while many others died of starvation. A lion and a bear were the only zoo animals to survive, according to Khalil.

“The lion and the bear were in very bad conditions, very sick,” he told ABC News. “It’s a disaster.”

It took 100 days of bloodshed and street-to-street fighting for Iraqi troops to seize the eastern half of Mosul from ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the ongoing fighting there, and the harrowing sights of a city they were forced to leave behind have become emblematic of their suffering — including starved animals at a derelict zoo and smashed artifacts at a museum vandalized by retreating ISIS fighters.

PHOTO: Nearly forty animals at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq have died. Four Paws International
Nearly forty animals at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq have died.

The battle for Mosul

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell under ISIS rule in the summer of 2014, when the jihadist group took over swaths of northern and western Iraq. Mosul is the group’s last urban stronghold in the country.

On Oct. 17, 2016, about 18,000 Iraqi forces, 10,000 Kurdish forces known as peshmerga and a few thousand Iraqi federal police launched the massive operation to free Mosul from ISIS control. Iraqi special forces joined the fight four days later. These forces all received assistance from American military advisers in Iraq.

On Jan. 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” from ISIS. On Feb. 19 he announced an offensive was launched to retake the western side of Mosul. That half of the city, on the west bank of the Tigris River, is more densely populated than the eastern side, and it is believed that ISIS fighters will take advantage of the narrow streets to slow down the military offensive.

A U.S. official who spoke to ABC News over the weekend said the military offensive has gone well so far, despite facing tough resistance from ISIS fighters.

PHOTO: A member of the Iraqi military looks at a crater made by an air strike in west Mosul as Iraqi troops continue battling against Islamic State fighters to further advance inside the city, on March 7, 2017. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Iraqi military looks at a crater made by an air strike in west Mosul as Iraqi troops continue battling against Islamic State fighters to further advance inside the city, on March 7, 2017.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Tuesday that there are currently 211,572 Iraqis displaced by the fighting in Mosul, with over 50,000 added since the latest military offensive was launched. More than 195,000 displaced Iraqis are sheltering in 21 camps built by U.N. agencies and the government around Mosul. But most camps are at or near full capacity, so the UNHCR is working to open camps to accommodate the spike in displacement.

         
              
                     
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                SLIDESHOW: Displaced families flee Mosul             
        
    
    

Those who fled their homes risked their lives to do so and often walked long distances to reach safety at government checkpoints. Many arrived in desperate condition, visibly traumatized, famished, dehydrated, without shoes and wearing soaked clothing, according to the UNHCR.

“We were starving for one month, just feeding the children water and flour, and sometimes we could improve the diet with a bit of tomato paste. It was either stay and die or flee and risk death. Hunger was the main reason for us to leave,” Adil, 34, told the UNHCR, describing his family’s recent escape from western Mosul.

PHOTO: Iraqi federal police inspect Mosuls heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017. Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo
Iraqi federal police inspect Mosul's heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017.

Remnants of a city

Life has begun to return to normal for those in the parts of Mosul freed from ISIS control. But reminders of the group’s brutal two-and-a-half-year rule lingers.

Earlier this week, Iraqi-led forces seized Mosul’s administration building and antiquities museum on the western bank of the Tigris.

PHOTO: Iraqi federal policemen inspect the inside of Mosuls heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017. Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo
Iraqi federal policemen inspect the inside of Mosul's heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017.

ISIS released video in 2015 showing its militants smashing artifacts at the museum with sledgehammers and power tools. The group, which views ancient artifacts as idolatrous, has systematically destroyed ancient temples, churches and palaces in Syria and Iraq over the past two and a half years.

The Mosul museum once contained Mesopotamian artifacts dating back thousands of years. The cultural site is now in ruins, with its exhibition halls housing mounds of rubble and the basement filled with ash. Local archaeologists are facing a race against time to save their country’s heritage, according to The Associated Press.

PHOTO: The charred remains of ancient books and manuscripts that had been burned are seen inside Mosuls heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017. Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo
The charred remains of ancient books and manuscripts that had been burned are seen inside Mosul's heavily damaged museum in Western Mosul, Iraq, March 8, 2017.

The zoo’s survivors

Along the eastern bank of the Tigris River is a public park that houses the Montazah al-Morour Zoo. ISIS set up a military base at the park after invading Mosul in 2014. Many of the lions, bears, monkeys, tropical birds and other wild animals that inhabited the zoo died during the militants’ occupation, according to aid groups.

Khalil, a veterinarian with the animal welfare charity Four Paws International, led a rapid response team from the group to the zoo on Feb. 21. It was nearly destroyed, and bombs had ripped open cages. Animals that were able to escape were eaten by predators or died from starvation, according to Four Paws. The only known survivors were a lion named Simba and a bear named Lula, both suffering from many diseases caused by malnutrition and a lack of veterinary care, Khalil said.

“Humans can run, escape,” he told ABC News in an interview Wednesday. “These animals don’t have the opportunity to escape.”

PHOTO: A sedated bear named Lula receives treatment at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017. Four Paws International
A sedated bear named Lula receives treatment at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017.

Simba’s and Lula’s cages were filled with debris, and the animals were sitting in their own feces and urine, Khalil said. The bear suffers from pneumonia, and the lion has a joint condition. Both had severe diarrhea and rotting teeth.

Khalil learned that Simba’s mother recently died of starvation. Locals buried her in a grave next to his cage. Lula was a mother to cubs that also did not survive.

PHOTO: A lion in its cage looks at a dead lioness in a grave at Mosuls zoo, Iraq, Feb. 2, 2017. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
A lion in its cage looks at a dead lioness in a grave at Mosul's zoo, Iraq, Feb. 2, 2017.

Most of the zoo’s owners and employees were killed by ISIS or died in the crossfire of the operation to retake Mosul. Those who survived and remain in the area are wounded and have been unable to care for the zoo animals.

Local residents told Khalil they tried to feed the animals whenever they could but they don’t have the funds to purchase the necessary supplies or the proper experience to care for wild animals.

“I saw the neighbors tried to do their best,” Khalil said. “It was very sad.”

The locals were happy to see the zoo animals finally receiving the urgent care they needed and were eager to lend a hand to Khalil and his team.

“I think it was a message of hope, and I saw everyone trying to help us,” he said. “It showed how far we could be humane or inhumane.”

PHOTO: A sedated bear named Lula receives treatment at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017. Four Paws International
A sedated bear named Lula receives treatment at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017.

This is not the first time Khalil, a 52-year-old Egyptian native, has helped animals in conflict or disaster zones. He is specifically trained to do so. He saved animals at Libya’s Tripoli Zoo after the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi and rescued animals from Iraq’s Baghdad Zoo after the Gulf War.

“Those animals are coming last, but for us, it’s our first priority,” Khalil said.

In August 2016 he and his rescue team evacuated all 15 remaining animals at the Khan Younis Zoo, dubbed the worst zoo in the world, in the besieged Gaza Strip. After receiving veterinary attention, the animals were transported to sanctuaries in Jordan, South Africa and elsewhere.

PHOTO: Veterinarian Amir Khalil enters the cage of a lion that was abandoned in the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in eastern Mosul, Iraq on Feb. 21, 2017. Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
Veterinarian Amir Khalil enters the cage of a lion that was abandoned in the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in eastern Mosul, Iraq on Feb. 21, 2017.

But the situation at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo was different from those of any other missions, Khalil said.

The deafening sounds of bombs and gunshots were heard nearby while he and his team provided the animals with food and first aid. Though the area was no longer under ISIS control, the battlefield wasn’t far away, and locals told him that suspected militants occasionally pass through the area at night.

“The smell of fear is there. People are afraid,” Khalil said. “I was scared, to be honest. It is a dangerous situation.”

He and his Four Paws team provided Simba and Lula with food and urgent veterinary care. The team cleaned their cages for the first time in months.

“It’s our responsibility as humans,” he said. “We cannot close our eyes.”

PHOTO: A lion named Simba is one of the last two surviving animals at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017. Four Paws International
A lion named Simba is one of the last two surviving animals at the Montazah al-Morour Zoo in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017.

Before leaving Mosul, Khalil and his team trained local volunteers how to care for the animals and left the residents with enough food and medicine for four weeks. He hopes to return to Mosul soon with a long-term solution for Simba and Lula.

“You cannot seek care only for humans,” he said. “Humanity cannot be divided. Kindness cannot be divided.”

ABC News’ Jeff Costello, Mazin Faiq, Benjamin Gittleson, Alex Marquardt, Luis Martinez, Lena Masri, Matt McGary, Blair Shiff, Paul H.B. Shin, Phaedra Singelis and Jeff Swartz contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.