The soul of Mosul


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Beneath the Iraqi number plate is a Portuguese one : credit: © Thom Westcott
Conflict reporter and LRM columnist Thom Westcott finds a rather unusual battered Series III 109 that survived ISIS in Mosul, Iraq

Reporting during the nine-month battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul, I wrote several columns about the Land Rovers I encountered. These included an ISIS Defender 110 the Iraqi Special Forces had seized and repurposed – easy since their vehicles shared the colour black – and another Land Rover that had been turned into a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) but was captured by the Iraqi forces before ISIS had the chance to deploy it. 

The Mosul Land Rover that got away was a characterful old Series III 109 parked up outside a camp for Mosul inhabitants displaced by fighting. It was rather down at heel but still featured some interesting decoration, including fading paintwork detail and a row of 10 stick-on compasses along the windscreen. I took some photos but there was no-one around to ask about this intriguing vehicle. 

Big smiles despite the SIII’s latest breakdown

Four years later, Mosul is a war-scarred city bustling with reconstruction. Heading north on the main highway out of town, we whizz past a sand-coloured battered old Series III. Utterly Iraqi and charming, the bonnet is open with several figures poring over the 2.25-litre engine. 

I ask my fellow journalist Owen if he would mind going back and, knowing I write for LRM, he is understanding. As we’re doing the trip on a shoestring budget, our patient translator Bendar is a student, whose spoken English is pretty good but not amazing. 

Quilted dash top and rudimentary hi-fi installation

Owen unsuccessfully attempts to explain why we want to go back but the talk of Land Rovers proves confusing and Bendar thinks we want to abandon our current destination and return to the city. I abbreviate to: “Go back short distance to photograph old car, then go on.” Having already found our requests perplexing, he agrees to yet another deviation from a haphazardly-planned day which he mistakenly thought was going to be a short sightseeing trip around Mosul. 

As this is Iraq, there’s no need to drive miles to the next vehicular turning point on the highway. It’s much faster to manoeuvre slowly along the dirt-edge of the highway in the wrong direction against a flood of oncoming traffic, including a near lane full of juggernauts. “This old car?” Bendar asks incredulously when we reach it, and I confirm.

“Stay in car, I will ask,” Bendar instructs, still reeling from an earlier incident when, having glibly told us to photograph a statue, unfortunately located in front of a military base, we were held up by questioning and mandatory deletion of the offending pictures. 

But it’s too late, I am already halfway out, with a smiling greeting for the two men and a boy holding various mechanical components and oily rags.

Owner Sa’ad trimmed the whole interior himself

Sa’ad has owned this 1985 late Series III for 15 years, which I assume indicates a deep love for the vehicle. When I ask what his favourite thing about this Land Rover is, he throws his arms in the air, indicating levels of frustration that cross all language barriers.

“Today I am very angry with him because there’s a problem!” he expostulates. “Today it’s some problem with the clutch which we are trying to fix, but every week, every month, there is another problem. Always problems.” Perhaps realising he should find something positive to say, he adds: “But at least today we don’t need to take out the gearbox.”

I empathise, explaining I’m in a similar boat with my 1977 Lightweight. Sa’ad and friends seem delighted with the idea of a British woman driving an even older vehicle. They lead me around the 109, pausing to open the side panel box, crammed with such Land Rover essentials as two canisters of oil, a large bottle of water, a coiled length of hosepipe and several chunks of wood. 

Homemade cabin retrim extends to the gear lever and transmission tunnel

Sa’ad’s old Series III is a pick-up, with built-up rear sides to make it more truck-like. A spare wheel in perfect condition (although coated with a fine layer of dust) is strapped inside the back, short ladders protect the rear lights and extended rear mud-flaps swing below, labelled ‘TRANSIT’ and clearly repurposed from a lorry. 

It has been slightly modernised and customised, as some of the eagle-eyed readers among you will have noted from the images that it has a 2.25 petrol engine and a Stage 1 V8 grille panel and bonnet. “I work in construction, so this is a very useful vehicle,” explains Sa’ad, mellowing from his annoyance about the clutch. With the reconstruction of Mosul – so terribly damaged by the ISIS occupation and ruinous liberation conflict – now well underway, work is busy, although today is a down-day, dedicated to getting the Land Rover back on the road. 

He also uses it as a family car which, with two wives and 15 children, must be quite a mission. “Not all of them at the same time,” he corrects, laughing uproariously. “The wife always sits in the front and the children in the back.”

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What the bonnet mascot started life as is impossible to tell

I ask to see inside and Sa’ad encourages me to climb into the cab. In contrast to the battered exterior, the interior is unbelievably well-cared for, with an extraordinary customised designer theme of quilted fabric. The roof is done out in laminated brown quilted fabric, with matt-black quilted faux leather for practically everything else. And I mean, everything. The steering wheel, the gear stick, the gearbox housing (above which the Transfer Gears instruction plate has been carefully re-attached), the handbrake and even the footwells are likewise fitted out, although cardboard has been deployed in the passenger footwell, to prevent it being dirtied by grubby work boots. 

There is amazing attention to detail, including a great deal of fringing. A fabric-covered insert running the length of the windscreen, complete with an embedded car stereo, has been lovingly fringed with black and grey, as has the gear levers and handbrake. “I did it all myself,” says Sa’ad with a hint of pride, as my admiration for his handiwork is well-received.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, I slam the door, shutting myself in, grab the padded, quilted steering wheel and say: “Right, I’m off.” Uproarious laughter follows. “You’re welcome. Good luck!” says Sa’ad, as clearly the vehicle is going nowhere, at least for the next few hours. 

“Where will you go? England?” he asks. “Yes. How long would it take?” I ask, mischievously. “In this vehicle?” Sa’ad rolls his eyes to the heavens. “I think one year!”

Old Land Rovers never die, but they do break down…

Sa’ad’s father has now joined the frivolities, so I politely get out for the requisite greetings. He proudly announces it was he who bought the 109 and gave it to Sa’ad. I ask him how the Land Rover survived ISIS, who routinely commandeered vehicles for their own nefarious purposes.  

“We all stayed in Mosul throughout ISIS, us and the Land Rover, but ISIS didn’t want this old car,” the father explains. “It was too old even for them.”

I grab a few photos of the front, crouching down to get a nice shot including the Iraqi numberplate, riveted over its original Portuguese EU numberplate. This indicates a registration date of 1992, so perhaps this was formerly a military vehicle. Below the numberplate is attached an extra plate, with a home-made typeface stating: LAND ROVER IRAQ. Someone dives into the cab and flicks a switch for the full illuminations. 

As an array of lights, including neat little LED additions, click into being, a cerebral light-switch clicks in my brain. I recognise the unforgettable logo beneath the numberplate. This is the same vehicle I photographed outside that refugee camp in 2017.

Coolant spill on the 2.25’s radiator not a great colour​​​​​​

Everyone is in such good spirits, I swallow the thought. I have seen so much evidence of how this beleaguered city is trying to put ISIS and the war behind it – an unenviable task in a complicated and corrupt country like Iraq – it seems inappropriate to bring up unhappier times when the family might have been displaced, and perhaps lost family members, as most in Mosul did during the war. I just can’t mention that miserable-looking sprawling refugee camp. 

But this Land Rover also reflects Mosul’s regeneration. Back in 2017, it was altogether a more humble vehicle. The tyres were bald and the windscreen wipers missing but, even in those hard times, bolts and other bodywork details had been highlighted with red paint, showing how the vehicle was cherished.

“What about the number plate?” I ask instead, pointing to that lovely typeface which once gave me hope that, during that dreadful Mosul war, there was the remnants of a Land Rover club somewhere in this battered part of Iraq. “Oh, that’s from Saddam’s time,” Sa’ad’s father casually says, alluding to an era when Iraq was a very different place than it is today.

“The best thing about this vehicle is that it can go anywhere,” says Sa’ad, now apparently having forgotten about the Land Rover’s current mechanical difficulties. “You can drive out to villages, drive through the mud, or drive it up mountains.” 

Bendar is getting anxious about time, as we still have a long way to drive and so we start to make our farewells. 

“It’s a beautiful Land Rover,” I say warmly, as a parting comment. “Maybe you can ask Land Rover if they want it back and want to give us a new one instead?” asks Sa’ad laughing, although I doubt he would really part with that cherished 109 for anything.


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