Smoke in Mosul
Nish Nalbandian

Escaping Iraq in a Motorcycle Sidecar

Two Lunatics on a Mission to Mosul

My first instinct is to keep the mood light by joking with the soldiers in camouflage uniforms who can keep our newly acquired motorcycle off the road and threaten our dream.

I tell them through our translator and driver, Sangar, that they better have beds for us in the small, shabby trailers at the checkpoint along the road connecting Iraq’s war-ravaged city of Mosul and the relatively gleaming, prosperous Erbil just 35 miles away.

The soldiers laugh, though my comedic stylings aren’t changing their minds.

“How about this,” I say, prefacing a Hail Mary proposal, “I’ll arm wrestle you all. If I beat you guys, you let us go.” Feats of strengths are popular among soldiers in Iraq, so I figure offering one as a condition for letting us pass is just crazy enough to work.

They chuckle, shake their heads, and tell me they’ll get the biggest guy they have to take me on.

So with the sun casting its golden, evening light over northern Iraq, rendering this troubled land breathtaking in its beauty, there sits on a dusty patch the bike we’d just procured from one of the most dangerous places on earth, going nowhere.

And while Sangar tries to figure out how we’re going to overcome this bureaucratic roadblock, I plop down on a nearby mound of dirt to watch the sky grow darker as the dream gets dimmer.

We’ve been cultivating this “Mission to Mosul” motorcycle caper for months, ever since my friend and photographer, Nish Nalbandian, first noticed the particularly unique brand of bike on the streets of the besieged city.

Moving the Ural Sidehack
Getting the Ural out of Mosul was going to be both a logistical challenge and downright dangerous due to the continued fighting in the city, irregular road conditions, and military checkpoints.Nish Nalbandian

Nish has been chronicling the fighting in Mosul for almost a year, and, as a fellow moto enthusiast, he was practically giddy at the site of a Russian-made Ural, replete with trademark sidecar.

He and I joined forces a handful of times to report on the fighting in Mosul between Iraqi forces alongside Kurdish troops and Sunni militias against the dreaded Islamic State, which captured Iraq’s second-largest city in 2014 and subjugated its residents to countless horrors.

It’s been a difficult and dangerous story to cover. The last time Nish and I were in Mosul earlier this year we linked up with the elite Iraqi Special Operations Forces as they made their big push into the western half of the city after recapturing the east.

The fighting was fierce; casualties mounted on both sides. The bodies of soldiers, civilians, and Islamic State fighters were stacking up in Mosul. Extremists killed in the fighting were left in the streets, some with execution-style bullet wounds in their heads.

The tatter of automatic gun fire was more frequent than not, punctuated by large explosions from US-led airstrikes and jihadi car bombs. Some of the blasts were so powerful that large hunks of concrete and pavement landed on rooftops several stories high. Every close explosion rattled in your chest.

One day, Nish and I shadowed separate squads of soldiers. Almost immediately, his unit was targeted by a suicide car bomber. When the vehicle exploded in a massive fireball, Nish was slammed into a wall, the blast sending the engine block sailing past him, killing one soldier and wounding three.

Meanwhile, I witnessed a group of women and small children fleeing a neighborhood just liberated from the Islamic State amid the block-to-block fighting. Thousands of civilians were fleeing the city with little more than what they could carry. Some were clad in only tattered clothing and were visibly malnourished.

One woman bore deep gashes on her face from an explosion moments earlier. Trailing behind her was a young girl holding a baby, no older than my infant daughter. The child was slack in her arms and unresponsive. I’ve been covering conflict for a long time and have witnessed numerous horrors humanity has to offer. What’s happening in Mosul are some of the worst things I’ve ever seen.

Duba in the open
“Duba,” as the Ural is known locally, sits in the clear for the first time.Nish Nalbandian

Unfortunately, this story gets too little attention back home. Frustrated by this, Nish and I decided we’d try a new approach to storytelling that would combine events unfolding in Mosul and our passion for riding. As crazy as the concept sounded, even to us, we pursued it doggedly hoping to reach a new audience and show them the gravity of the situation.

To pull off this unusual feat, we needed to find and buy a bike like the one Nish had seen months earlier. Sangar managed to track down one of the few Mosul-area Urals in civilian hands. After a short negotiation, the bike was ours for $400.

That was the easy part. Getting the motorcycle out of Mosul was going to be both a logistical challenge and downright dangerous due to the continued fighting in the city, irregular road conditions, and military checkpoints. During the strategy session on the eve of our “Mosul Ural Mission,” Sanger drew a map illustrating an alternative route from the war zone to Erbil that would allow us to avoid some of the numerous checkpoints along the way. Considering we’d purchased the bike on a handshake agreement and with no tags, avoiding the authorities also seemed ideal at first.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit like smugglers,” he said with a devilishness that would have previously appealed to my mischievous side.

The new father in me, however, raised red flags about eluding those who controlled the main road. I didn’t want to get shot—by the Islamic State or Iraqi forces—over a motorcycle. A few years back, I was injured in Afghanistan and it cost me the vision in my right eye. Before leaving for this latest trip, my wife half-jokingly warned me that if I got hurt riding a motorcycle in Iraq, it’d be best that I didn’t come back.

Iraqi suicide bombing
Iraqi Special Forces vehicles totaled by suicide bomber lie under a pall of smoke in western Mosul.Nish Nalbandian

Before hitting the road, we needed to get the bike fixed. For a long time, it had sat motionless in the walled-off courtyard of its owner, a home that had been commandeered by Islamic State fighters until recently when they were run out of that part of the city.

Evidence of their presence remained. The fighters used the home as a fighting position and as such the building took its share of fire from Iraqi forces. This was a common practice of the Islamic State during the siege of Mosul. Residents fled the city only to have gunmen sleep in their beds.

While the Islamic State was using the home, an incoming mortar hit one of the walls, showering the bike with large chunks of concrete that crushed the gas tank.

That wasn’t its only defect. The brake and clutch cables were either rotted or missing, and all three tires were flat. But the bike’s engine was intact and with little prompting turned over, though hacking and wheezing.

We turned to local bike mechanic and Ural enthusiast Firas Assadi to get the bike rolling again. In the blazing midday heat, his nephews pushed it several blocks to Firas’ small shop. He then went to work, replacing the carburetors, cables, gas tank, ignition, and numerous other repairs all in a matter of hours with none of the amenities available in Western bike shops.

Firas’ skill comes from decades of experience with the Ural, this one in particular. “I know this bike well,” he said noting his friendship with the previous owner. “I’ve been riding it for years.” His father and grandfather were also Ural riders. After completing a top-down repair job, he demonstrated his skill with the bike by performing a side-wheelie down the length of the street much to everyone’s amazement.

With the bike up and running, we turned to two more locals for help getting it out of Mosul. Nish and I decided that the sight of two obvious foreigners riding such a conspicuous bike through the streets was asking for trouble.

Firas Assadi in Ural
Firas Assadi takes the Ural for a spin moments after finishing repairs.Nish Nalbandian

Even though the Islamic State had been forced from this part of the city, the threat from “sleeper cells” remained high, prompting our decision to keep a low profile. Battles were still raging less than a mile from us. We could hear long bursts of fire from helicopter gunships and thunderous artillery in the nearby old city, where the last terrorist holdouts still hadn’t surrendered.

Bike mechanic Talib Tayawe and Ahmed Khaled Ahmed, an off-duty policeman and fellow rider who lost an eye in an explosion, agreed to help us. We needed a mechanic who could repair the bike if it broke down along the way and an officer of the law to flash his ID in case we ran into any trouble at checkpoints.

Talib was especially excited to help us in our motorcycle mission. He’d had his share of run-ins with the Islamic State. Shortly after they wrested control of the city, the extremists took over the building that once housed his business, forcing him to relocate to a makeshift, corrugated steel shack up the road.

“[Islamic State fighters] used to come to my old place and tell me that if I didn’t work on their bikes they were going to arrest me,” he said.

Both relished the opportunity to be the first ones to put the resurrected Ural to the test, laughing and hollering in delight as they sped away from the destruction and mayhem that's been the one constant in the upended lives of Mosul residents. We followed them in Sangar's SUV eagerly awaiting our turn to ride.

Once outside of Mosul, in the nearby predominantly Christian town of Hamdaniya, our caravan stopped for refreshments and test rides from each of the bike’s new owners. Both novices to sidecar riding, Nish and I took turns at the helm, learning basics like steering without the vehicle leaning, a counterintuitive move for motorcyclists.

The town’s streets were empty except for the occasional Iraqi Army vehicle. Most are lined with homes scorched by fires and pockmarked with bullets holes. Iraqi Christians targeted by the Islamic State were either killed, fled to nearby refugee camps, or moved in with relatives outside the terror group’s sphere of control.

Mosul Bike Repairs
One of Assadi’s mechanics works on the previously rubble-covered machine as a crowd of locals gathers to watch the bike get patched up and put back on the road.Nish Nalbandian

In the near-ghost-town-like streets of Hamdaniya, Nish and I practiced riding the bike without fear of other vehicles interrupting our tutorial. It’s a good thing too. We learned immediately that the Ural had a ghastly low-speed shimmy that made the handlebars shake violently unless you gunned the throttle.

There was little time for mastering the art of sidecar motorcycling. We needed to keep moving if we were going to get back before nightfall. Talib and Ahmed rode the bike as far as the next checkpoint, though we had to pass through it on our own. We thanked them for their help, and they said their goodbyes before hitching a ride back to the devastation waiting for them Mosul.

Nish and I decided we’d take turns steering with the other riding in the sidecar. Sangar would drive behind us in case the bike broke down during the remaining 35-mile stretch to Erbil. Long lines of cars and trucks jockeying for position at the checkpoint belched smoke and fumes. I was in the saddle for the first leg of the trip as Nish rode shotgun taking photos and video.

Almost immediately, the unwieldy bike got away from me and I bumped into the car in front of us. The driver got out to inspect for potential damage and gave me the stink eye.

A soldier came over presumably to inquire about my ineptitude. It was then that we were instructed to pull over to the side of the road for a lengthy chat with the major in charge of the checkpoint threatening to ground our long-planned mission even before it could be properly launched.

So much for remaining under the radar.

Just when I’m almost resigned to our failure and the real possibility of the bike being seized from us, Sangar pulls off a miracle of tact, persuasion, and reaching out to the right important people for help. He tells us we can proceed as planned and we mount up before the soldiers change their minds.

This time, Nish wisely assumes the throttle while I prepare for my first-ever ride in a sidecar. As we pull out of the dusty lot and pass the crawling traffic, Nish opens the Ural up to near top speed, which, in its current condition, is about 45 mph.

Nish against Iraqi sky
The Ural with the backdrop of the glowing Iraqi sky and the sight of the war-torn city in the distance.Nish Nalbandian

It’s a rush nonetheless. The sidecar rests on creaking shocks giving it the feel of an aged, wooden roller coaster. I take pictures of Nish against the backdrop of a glowing Iraqi sky and note the lunatic grin on his face.

I must be wearing one too.

Our zeal is tempered by the sight of the burned wreckage of military and civilian vehicles we pass, buildings reduced to heaps of rubble and the sprawling roadside refugee camp that houses hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents. By the time we pull over to switch places, the sun has set and the road ahead is dark except for the roving headlights of other vehicles passing us at high speeds. The Ural’s own headlight is dim and flickering, and its taillights are out of commission.

Sangar wisely drives behind us using his hazard lights to warn drivers that there is a slow-moving bike carrying a couple of crazy foreigners hell bent on finding a new way to explain what’s happening here.

Piloting the Ural is exhausting. My forearms ache with tension and from the effort it takes to keep the bike tracking straight on the uneven and darkened surface. Erbil isn’t far off, and we can’t arrive there soon enough.

“Slow down,” Nish yells above the engine’s roar. I ease off the throttle, though not enough that the shimmying resumes. It’s a delicate balancing act that keeps my heart in my throat until we reach the lights and well-paved roads of Erbil.

We pull onto a side street and arrive at the home of Sangar’s friend, who has agreed to let us keep the bike at his house until we can obtain the proper paperwork for it.

“I don’t know about you, but that last leg of the ride was probably one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done in Iraq,” I tell Nish, who nods in agreement and with what I’m guessing is extreme relief that I didn’t get him killed while pursuing our dream.