Sadi Mohamed hadn’t been driving a taxi for long when an airstrike took out his rear window. “The plane was targeting a suicide bomber, and my car was close to it,” he said.
Such are the rigors of driving a cab in Mosul, where more than a million residents are struggling to survive in the midst of combat that has cut them off from food, water and basic services.
As U.S.-backed Iraqi forces storm the city to drive out Islamic State militants, yellow cabs have become a lifeline for many residents, allowing them to zip back and forth across the front lines.
Some of the taxis are so new they still have price tags stuck to the windows. They help Mosulawis — who have been urged by the government to remain in the city — stay connected to the outside world, ferrying them to stores, clinics and relatives.
Drivers must negotiate treacherous roads and sectarian security checkpoints. They live with the fear that their next passenger could be a militant. Sometimes, despite their front-line savvy, they get caught in the crossfire, hit by Islamic State or Iraqi security forces.
One day recently, more than a dozen taxis idled near a Kurdish checkpoint about 10 miles east of Mosul, drivers standing by the road drinking tea from small glasses. They were charging about $8 one way to the edge of Mosul for an individual, $20 for a family.
“Poor people go to camps,” said taxi driver Hoshyar Faisal Qasim, “The others go to Irbil and Baghdad.”
Qasim, 30, bearded with bluish eyes, had been driving a taxi for seven years in the semiautonomous Kurdish region east of Mosul before the offensive started.
Recently, Qasim spotted a family from east Mosul wounded in a mortar attack standing by the main road in Gogjali.
"They were in the street waiting for any car to take them to the hospital. So I took them without charging them," he said. "They were in pain and crying and their injuries were critical — it was in most of their bodies: head, eyes, legs and hands. When I saw kids, I remembered my family."
He never learned their fate.
He has learned to be wary of sectarian checkpoints. Not long ago, he said, 18 fellow Kurdish taxi drivers were detained nearby for several days by state-sanctioned Shiite militia fighters.
And occasionally, he gets a passenger who raises his suspicions.
Last month, a man in his 30s hailed Qasim’s cab and offered to pay $500 to $1,000 if the driver would get him past security checkpoints. The man didn’t seem like a local — he had trouble providing directions out of Mosul, Qasim said. The driver suspected his passenger was a militant posing as a civilian in order to flee.
Once they reached a checkpoint, Qasim said he alerted security forces that the man was suspicious, “and then they took him for questioning."
Fellow driver Mohamed “George” Murad has also grown accustomed to the perils of traversing a war zone.
Born and raised in Mosul, Murad left after the 2003 U.S. invasion to work as a linguist with the U.S. Army in Iraq for five years, adopting the nickname George in honor of President George W. Bush.
“We got hit by IEDs, car bombs, everything back in the day,” he said as he stood beside his taxi near a checkpoint east of Mosul.
Murad liked to blast American country music, and U.S. troops soon dubbed him the “Iraqi redneck.” One of his favorite songs, which he still plays on his cellphone in his cab, is Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again.”
“I have been on the road since 2003,” he said.
Murad, 32, moved to the U.S. in 2008 and worked in Texas and West Virginia before returning to northern Iraq last year, marrying, having a daughter and driving a cab.
Now he works with a fleet of half a dozen taxis run by friends and family. They mainly drive soldiers and police, charging them a bit more than the cost of gas “because we know they don’t get much.”
Late last month, U.S.-coalition forces destroyed the last of five bridges spanning the Tigris River, which bisects Mosul, cutting off access for taxis and other traffic to the city’s west side. Then they launched the latest phase of the offensive, sending troops farther into the city.
Murad has seven uncles and an older sister in western Mosul, living under Islamic State. His sister phones the family regularly to report that she and her four children are safe, have stockpiled supplies and if fighting intensifies, will hide in their basement. Once her neighborhood is freed by Iraqi forces, the family plans to drive in to rescue her.
Until then, Murad sticks to remote country roads on the city’s outskirts.
“The only thing we can do now is pray,” he said.
Sadi Mohamed, the driver who lost his rear window, got his taxi last month. As more of the city was freed from Islamic State, his business surged. Now he shuttles about 100 fares a day.
A short, thin figure in fitted blue jeans, Mohamed, 35, said he fled Mosul to the Netherlands before Islamic State seized his hometown two years ago. He returned six months ago to care for his sick mother and sell fish at a market. When the offensive began, roads closed, cutting him off from suppliers in Baghdad, and he started driving a cab.
Driving his taxi, Mohamed weaves through the eastern Intisar and Zahra neighborhoods to the suburbs of Gogjali and Samaha, where Iraqi forces have been fighting for weeks.
"There are areas with conflict and occasionally random bullets will be fired your way,” he said. “I avoid those areas as much as I can.”
A military curfew keeps him from driving after 5 p.m., and he has to be careful at security checkpoints.
Often, Mohamed carries passengers wounded by mortars and rockets to Gogjali’s one-room World Health Organization clinic. He recalled a mother of five in her 30s who hailed his cab after an explosion. She had been trying to escape with her children during an attack. The blast killed her 10-year-old son.
The woman’s injuries were minor, but she was so distraught, she couldn’t speak during the ride from her Mosul neighborhood to an area at the city’s edge where ambulances waited.
"She was hysterical, completely lost it. Her son had just died," he said.
The ambulance took the woman 50 miles east to a hospital in Irbil, where she stayed with her surviving children as bombing plagued their neighborhood. The woman’s brother later told Mohamed it took five days for things to quiet enough for him to bury the boy’s body, in the same garden where he died.
Mohamed also ferries families to markets to fetch staples.
“People are suffering because there is no water or electricity,” he said as he waited for customers near a busy market in Gogjali earlier this month.
Two days later, the market was attacked by suicide bombers in armored cars who killed 23 people and injured 50. At the time, Mohamed was in his car, about 200 yards from one of the bombers.
"The security forces fired at him but he wouldn't stop and then the car exploded. There was chaos and blood everywhere, a lot of burned cars," he said.
Mohamed was not injured. The blast destroyed numerous cars, including taxis, but not his. He went back to work soon after.
The taxi drivers are also at risk of friendly fire. In November, CNN recorded Iraqi forces fatally shooting an elderly taxi driver in Mosul as he ran from his yellow car, which they feared was rigged with explosives.
"The security forces think everyone is the enemy,” Mohamed said.
He tries to reassure his family that he’s safe by phoning them during the day.
"They worry, of course, but there is so much uncertainty. The best I can do is call," he said.