`Inside the War on ISIS:’ Jana Andert’s Journey through the Battle of Mosul at the Xposure International Photography Festival

Jana Andert (right) and Ray Wells (left) discuss Andert’s documentary “Inside the War on ISIS,” at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on February 9, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar).

Accompanying soldiers at a combat zone as fierce as the Battle of Mosul is no easy task. Yet, for Czech documentarist Jana Andert, it was necessary. “If nobody goes, nobody knows,” said Andert, discussing her documentary “Inside the War on ISIS” in a panel session on Wednesday at the opening of the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

In October 2016, Iraqi government troops launched a major military campaign, together with local and international allied forces, to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants, who had seized the country’s second-biggest city in 2014. Andert accompanied the Iraqi special forces, documenting their fight against Islamic State.

“There were around 20,000 of them at the time,” said Andert during the panel session moderated by Ray Wells, former Deputy Picture Editor at the Sunday Times. “They lost around 40% of their soldiers during the fight.”

Andert shared with the audience her harrowing war experiences during her eight-month stay in Iraq. “What was very difficult about the battle was the civilians who had remained in the city, making things more difficult and complicated.” She said that Islamic State held people hostages in houses and placed bombs in residential buildings, leading to the death of innocent civilians during the combat operations with the coalition.

Jana Andert (right) reveals the difficulties she faced during her journey in the Battle of Mosul at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on February 9, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar).

Andert, 38, did not start her career as a documentarist. After receiving a degree in photography in Breda, The Netherlands, she worked in fashion and commercial photography for about six years. “I did enjoy it, but it didn’t feel complete,” she said. “I wanted to make a bigger impact, a social impact.”

Inspired by her grandfather, who had served as a diplomat in Syria, Andert began to venture into humanitarian forms of photography and videography, while studying psychology. She focused on the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq, and started to work with media organizations like CNN and Channel4.

Andert eventually found herself embedded with the Golden Unit, which she joined on several operations. “If I go with them, I have to be with them at the operation till the end,” said Andert. There were difficult moments. “We got stuck and surrounded by ISIS, who were in the house next door. We had to stay for three hours, and I asked myself, ‘What are you doing here?'”

Jana Andert (right) speaks about the trust she built with Iraqi soldiers, including Salman (shown on the screen), at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on February 9, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar).

Andert gained the trust of the soldiers, particularly two of them, Salman and Mohammed. “Salman would talk about me to his father and tell me about his future and dreams,” she said. “Mohammad spoke perfect English and was the closest person to me, and saw me as his little sister. I’m still in contact with him.”

Jana Andert displays the trauma that civilians endured during the battle of Mosul in her exhibition at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on February 9, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar).

Andert also recalled the suffering of the civilians, many of whom died during the battle. She is still traumatized by the sight of one dead little girl with torn clothes and a little boy running with his baby brother, both crying and distressed. She documented what she witnessed in a documentary “Inside the War on ISIS,” which was made in 2018 and is available on Amazon Prime.

Beno Saradzic, a 53-year-old Slovanian architectural photographer and time-lapse artist who had attended the event, expressed admiration for Andert’s courage. “What Jana did is something absolutely incredible and fascinating, and it’s amazing to hear it directly from her,” said Saradzic. “The first thing I’m going to do is to watch the documentary.”

Andert said that she mostly wanted to document first-hand the effect of wars on communities. “I have been trying to tell the story of the people, not just give information, because each person has a name, a background, it’s not just a number,” said Andert. “I hope that is relayed in the film, as I tried to get closer and show the different aspects, show the human side of the soldiers.”

Jana Andert sheds light on the life of refugees through her humanitarian-focused photographs in her exhibition at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on February 9, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar).

The annual festival, which runs until February 15, features workshops, focus groups, and exhibitions at Expo Sharjah, with a line-up of more than 70 photographers. “It has become one of the highlights for me personally just to come here and meet all these people with these incredible talents and stories,” said Saradzic.

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