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Hope amid the ruins: Mosul after ISIS

June 17, 2022
topics: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Katarzyna Rybarczyk
located in: Iraq
tags: Iraq, ISIS, Mosul

In 2014, fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized control over parts of Iraq’s territory and launched a campaign of terror against civilians. The prominent city of Mosul was reduced to rubble.

During ISIS's rule, the highway connecting northern and southern Iraq, from Baghdad to Mosul, became the most feared route in the country, with both sides of the road serving as battlefields. 

In April, I took a minibus going down this route to visit Mosul, once ISIS’s main bastion in the country, to investigate the city's revival process. As I was approaching Mosul, I could see tens of bombed car wrecks that have yet to be moved. But the route is safe now, as is most of Iraq.

"There are around fifty ISIS soldiers in hiding around Mosul, but the group is no longer active here," Ahmad, a twenty-five year old soldier participating in operations against ISIS in the city's Makhmur District, told FairPlanet. 

"ISIS has its bases in the mountains around Makmur, where Iraqi and French armies run counter-terrorism operations together. Other regions of Iraq are stable, though," he added. 

Still, while the battle against ISIS in Mosul officially ended five years ago, the post-war recovery is ongoing, and the city’s population remains vulnerable due to limited employment opportunities and paltry reconstruction efforts by the government. It seems that the Iraqi government, which currently controls Mosul, remains indifferent to the strife of its residents. In fact, all programmes designed to restore Mosul’s glory are run by international NGOs.

But even though Mosul appears as if it has just emerged from war, I received a warmer welcome there than in any other place I visited. 

Most families I met live in poverty but would, nonetheless, invite me to their homes, offer me food and tea - refusing to accept any money for it, and would happily share their life stories with me. 

I received a glimpse of the real Mosul: a city full of kind-hearted individuals who struggle to overcome the stigma of Iraq being a dangerous, isolated place.

'the link'

"I fled to Erbil when ISIS entered the city. I came back right after the liberation and I saw that the Old City was no longer there. ISIS destroyed everything, they destroyed my home," said Muammar, a taxi driver who grew up in Mosul. 

Mosul means "the link" in Arabic and, historically, ancient trading routes from regions as remote as China would pass through the city, making it a trade centre of the Ottoman Empire and the principal town of northern Mesopotamia. 

Following a three-year occupation by ISIS, Mosul’s Old City, established in the seventh century BC, was reduced to rubble.

Although five years have passed since the city’s liberation, the scale of destruction remains staggering.

Before the war, Mosul used to be not only a commercial centre but also a hub of cultural and religious diversity. The architecture of Mosul’s Old City was a testament to the Islamic and Christian Nestorian elements that had been prevalent there.

Now, however, Old City primarily consists of thousands of destroyed buildings and facades pitted with bullet holes. For those who live amid the ruins, their surroundings are a constant reminder of the traumatic ISIS rule rather than Mosul’s important history.

ISIS also destroyed cultural sites such as the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri, which had towered over Mosul for 842 years.

It was from the pulpit of this mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS, declared a caliphate. Extremists not only blew up the mosque and its famous leaning minaret, but also hid hundreds of explosives in the mosque’s walls.

Sporadic reconstruction 

A sustained effort is required to rebuild the devastated city and boost economic growth. That said, repairing homes and businesses has been a challenge, mainly because employment opportunities in Mosul are limited and the government provides no financial assistance to those whose property was damaged by ISIS.

Most people in the city are casual workers. Mohammad usually sells cigarettes at a local market to earn money. But he and his wife also own two pigeons and make an extra income by selling baby birds, which are much sought after.

In Mosul, many people take interest in birds, as raising them is a sign of prestige. Pigeon breeders can, therefore, easily find customers.

Some business owners have reopened their shops in half-destroyed buildings. As there are no doors or windows that would keep their products safe from being stolen, they have to pack up their merchandise in the evening and bring it back in the morning.

As with businesses, some residents have partially rebuilt their houses amid the debris. It may seem surreal to imagine someone’s back yard as a sea of rubble harbouring decomposed bodies and unexploded bombs. But in Mosul - it is a reality.

Breathing life into Mosul

But reviving the city requires more than rebuilding houses and infrastructure. Education and culture are the main drivers of recovery that can empower people and give them confidence in a better future.

When ISIS controlled Mosul, it took over schools and introduced a new curriculum, forcing children to study Islamic law and learn how to use weapons.

Thousands of children were deprived of access to adequate education and many families preferred to keep them out of school rather than risk their safety and allow them to get indoctrinated.  

Just like with education, ISIS renounced arts and social life in the city. Now, the people of Mosul are reclaiming the city’s vibrant culture.

There is one square in Mosul, colorful and fully renovated, where people come in the evenings to spend time with friends and families at a local café. Streets of Mosul are no longer deserted and there is hope that soon all of Mosul will be as full of life as this square.

On the path to lasting piece

"Are you afraid that ISIS will come back?" I asked Ihab, a computer science student at the University of Mosul who stayed in the city throughout the occupation.

"No, if ISIS tried to come back, we would fight. We are better prepared now and we would not let them take our city again," he added. 

Leaving the violent past behind has not been easy for the city’s residents. But while the healing process from years of brutality, suffering and fear remains long, Mosul seems to be on the path toward lasting peace.  

Images by Katarzyna Rybarczyk. 

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Katarzyna Rybarczyk
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