Rescuing Arwa and Brice: The toughest 24 hours of my life
Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT) November 14, 2016
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Irbil, Iraq (CNN)"When was the last time you heard from Arwa or Brice?" I asked.
It was about 2 p.m. on the first Friday in November, and I was on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Mosul, calling our senior producer back in Irbil to see if our team reporting from the front lines of the Battle for Mosul had checked in.
Hours earlier, I'd said goodbye to my colleagues and friends, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Brice Laine, as they climbed into an armored vehicle with Iraqi special forces. I'd grabbed both of them before they left.
"Guys, be very careful," I'd said. "God be with you. I'll be waiting for you out here."
Normally, I'd have gone with them, but the army could only spare two seats for this mission. The soldiers, part of the Salahuddin regiment, would need every gun they could carry.
The MRAP carrying Arwa and Brice was part of a convoy of more than 35 armored vehicles preparing to make the perilous drive into ISIS-held territory east of Mosul, as part of the massive operation to retake the city.
The push began around 7 a.m. Armored Humvees crossed the long berm separating newly-liberated areas from ISIS-occupied lands, firing artillery shells and heavy machine guns as they went. A second convoy from another regiment, call-sign Kirkuk, followed them in.
More than two hours since they had vanished from sight, the sound of artillery shelling and heavy gunfire from the Iraqi forces hadn't stopped. ISIS militants were firing sporadic barrages of mortars that landed on empty land about 500 meters from where I and the rest of the team stood, on the roof of the Iraqi army unit HQ.
Phone communications were terrible; the network was overloaded, making it difficult to get through.
Suddenly, around 1 p.m., a number of armored Humvees appeared, most of them damaged, heading back towards our direction from the front line.
As I rushed to meet them, I could see expressions of shock on the soldiers' faces. At least six wounded troops were pulled from the vehicles, one of them in really bad condition.
They were from the Kirkuk regiment, who had gone in directly behind the regiment Arwa and Brice were embedded with.
"(ISIS fighters) were firing from a five-meter distance at us from all directions," one soldier said. "I took out three, but my gun jammed and couldn't carry on firing."
Their regiment had consisted of at least 35 Humvees and a couple of MRAPs, but only 12 Humvees had returned. Where were the rest?
"It is just us left," one soldier told me. "There are seven other soldiers trapped inside a shop in the Karkukli neighborhood, and only God knows if they still alive."
I was immediately concerned for Arwa and Brice. I called our senior producer to ask him whether they'd checked in with him.
Arwa had been expected to phone in a report live on CNN during the past hour, he said. But her call had never come.
Along with other concerned CNN staff around the world, I began trying frantically to reach Arwa and Brice by phone or text. Nothing.
Then, thankfully, a call came from CNN's international desk in Atlanta, conferencing me in to a call with Arwa.
The line wasn't great -- Arwa was calling from her satellite phone -- but I could tell from her voice that she was scared.
"Hamdi, we have been ambushed," she explained. "A suicide car bomb targeted our convoy and we are taking heavy fire. We are surrounded from all directions."
On hearing those words, I felt as though one of my family was in danger. Arwa is like a younger sister to me, and I knew I had to do everything in my power, use all my contacts, to get her and Brice out of there.
I first met Arwa when I walked into CNN's Baghdad bureau in 2004. She was young producer, clever, full of energy, with a big heart: the kind of person I connected with immediately.
When a bomb was thrown into my house that year, injuring my daughter, she brought a personal CD player for her to use. It meant a lot to me.
Hundreds of phone calls
On learning of the danger she and Brice now faced, I immediately called Iraqi military commanders asking them to send reinforcements to save the Salahuddin regiment they were embedded with.
"Don't worry," a top brigade commander said. The regiment's situation was good, and its forces were adequately prepared to hold their position, he assured me.
A counter-terrorism commander promised me that they were in the process of deploying a reinforcement regiment, call-sign Dayala, that would be at their position in roughly an hour.
When I called the commander again to see how far away reinforcements were, he said the plan had changed. When Kirkuk regiment had retreated, ISIS had managed to reinforce their position, and it was no longer an option to approach from that direction. Now they were advancing along a different route.
"Don't worry, they are in good shape," he said.
But of course I was worried. With every minute that passed, my chest squeezed a little tighter.
Occasionally, my mind wandered to memories of working with Arwa: arguing about a story script, laughing about something silly. Every explosion from the battlefield jolted me back to the brutal reality of her and Brice's situation.
What went wrong
From Ottoman times through to the era of Saddam Hussein, the men of Mosul have had a reputation as the most fearsome, committed soldiers in Iraq.
When the Iraqi military was dismantled after the fall of Saddam in 2003, many of these soldiers joined al-Qaeda, and then ISIS.
On November 4, the day Arwa and Brice went in, ISIS initially showed little resistance in the first couple of hours of the battle.
Iraqi forces passed through three neighborhoods quickly, making the going look easy.
But that was ISIS's plan.
ISIS militants then ambushed the Iraqi troops, destroying a couple of Humvees at the back of the Kirkuk convoy. The attack forced the rest of the regiment to retreat and left Arwa and Brice's Salahuddin regiment stranded in the neighborhood of Aden, exposed to ISIS fire from all directions.
"This poor unit got split," Arwa explains via text. "They've got no back up, nothing. I know you are trying."
A long, tough night
By now it was 5 p.m., just an hour from sundown. The commander tells me the reinforcement regiment, Diyala, is 400 meters away from the stranded unit's position. But before they can reach them and extract Arwa and Brice, they need to cross a creek.
ISIS knows reinforcements are coming, and again they are prepared.
At about 7 p.m., as Diyala regiment crosses the waterway, ISIS strikes. Two Humvees are damaged, a couple more immobilized and a number of soldiers wounded.
Diyala regiment is forced to focus on defending their position to prevent further losses in their ranks; rescuing Arwa and Brice is no longer an option.
I continue to frantically call military staff, looking for a solution. A commander tells me not to worry: both Salahuddin and Diyala regiments are fine, he says, and he will send his best regiment at first light to get them out.
Around 11 p.m., more Humvees come back from the front line. Foreign journalists emerge, but they have been to a different front and know nothing of Salahuddin's situation.
The heavy gunfire and explosions from shelling and suicide car bombs don't stop all night. Arwa and Brice's unit is frustratingly close, less than a mile away.
Just after midnight there are three loud explosions; they sound like car bombs. I text Arwa to see if she is OK. Thankfully, she responds. She says the explosions sounded different to the others, and thinks they could be car bombs too.
45 minutes feels like 2 years
Around 3 a.m., I hear another another massive explosion -- again, it sounds like a car bomb -- coming from the direction of Arwa's location.
I text her immediately. "R U OK?"
There's no response.
I text again and again, but there's nothing. I call my contacts among the commanders and officers, and even consider heading closer to the front line myself to see if I can find out any more information. I pace back and forth like a madman on the road behind the berm.
After 45 minutes, Arwa texts back: "Yes."
She tells me they might try to sleep, as they are exhausted.
The next morning, at 8:25 a.m., the Mosul regiment at last mobilizes 36 armored Humvees and an MRAP on a rescue mission to reach the stranded units. I count every single vehicle as they pass.
It takes them an hour to reach the creek. They have to change their route because ISIS is poised in wait.
I update Arwa as the operation unfolds. Suddenly, sounds of gunfire and explosions intensify from their direction. I text Arwa to ask what is happening.
At 9:02 a.m. she texts back: "We are surrounded again. Screwed." I call more commanders, urging them to get the reinforcements in faster.
Another text at 9:12 a.m.: "Ammo low. Sounds of explosions. Building shaking."
I try calling the commander leading the rescue mission, but my calls don't go through. I try others.
At 10:13 a.m. I manage to get the commander of the Mosul regiment on the phone, who tells me their status. It feels like a miracle -- reaching people here, especially inside the battle zone, is all but impossible.
I pass the stranded regiment's status on to the rescue commander. "Soldiers are running out of ammo," I tell him. "They need your help ASAP."
"My forces are battling fiercely with the enemy," he says. "We are only 350 meters away. I know the situation of the other regiment and we are doing everything we can to link up with them."
Shortly before midday, I text Arwa to ask how the soldiers are holding up. She replies they are still fighting, but that most are injured and they're running low on ammunition.
At 12:30 p.m., the reinforcements finally manage to reach to the stricken Salahuddin regiment, fighting through ISIS militants to secure a path and recover the wounded soldiers, along with my exhausted and traumatized colleagues.
By 1:30 p.m., after what were among the toughest 24 hours of my life, two armored Humvees deliver Arwa and Brice, along with the most seriously wounded soldiers, back to my position.
To see my colleagues walking towards me in one piece fills me with indescribable joy.