Homes destroyed or occupied by Iraqi forces, a million displaced from their devastated city, while IS fighters disappear into thin air. This is what I heard when I visited Mosul
After a long and hard fought battle, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday declared victory over the Islamic State (IS) group in Mosul - something he has been doing practically every month since the fight began in October 2016.
This so-called “liberation” has come at a great cost. According to the UNHCR, at least 1,040,460 civilians – or approximately half the population of Mosul - have been displaced. Of these, roughly 827,628 are still currently displaced, refugees in their own country, only a hundred miles or so from a city they once used to call home.
Iraqi women, who fled the fighting between government forces and IS in the Old City of Mosul, arrive in the city's western industrial district to be relocated on 8 July 2017 (AFP)
Last November, only a few weeks into the battle, I visited Mosul to help with humanitarian relief efforts. What I witnessed there was akin to what you see in post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies. Bullets and spent rocket shells littered the streets, and practically every building I saw bore signs of damage and destruction.
I went to the city again this February and March. With the east side of the city liberated only a few months prior to my visit, it was evident that life was slowly returning to normal. Markets and shops were open while people and cars filled the streets. I even managed to grab myself a meal and taste the famous kebabs of Mosul of which I had heard so much about from my parents and family.
Hope amid destruction
Amid all the hope and happiness, however, the momentous task ahead was evident. Government-run infrastructure was non-existent. A severe lack of water plagued the residents, and they had to rely on Unicef and other international NGOs to provide them with water that came in on delivery trucks. Unemployment was rife, and electricity was a luxury only accessible to those who could afford fuel and generators.
My aunts and uncles have told me of times in the past few months when they’ve had to hand out their own supplies to neighbours to make sure they survived
As bad as the eastern side of the city is, the western side is infinitely worse. The denser population and narrower streets proved difficult for the Iraqi troops to navigate. This, coupled with the indiscriminate shelling and air strikes by coalition forces, has led to thousands of civilian casualties, many of them still trapped under the rubble.
Areas of the Old City bear resemblance to the destruction seen in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Pretty much all the historical landmarks have been destroyed and any identity that the city had left is non-existent.
The task of rebuilding, experts say, will be a massive one. It will take “years, if not decades, before the city returns to normality,” Anas Altikriti, an British-Iraqi and CEO of the Cordoba Foundation, a UK-based think tank, told me. He estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be required.
Iraqis walk by the destroyed Al-Nuri Mosque as they flee from the Old City of Mosul on 5 July 2017 (AFP)
The people of Mosul are an old-fashioned bunch used to storing food in for the winter, so some households just kept going with food and rations that they had put away before the conflict began and were living off them for as long as they could.
The same could not be said for much of the population. My aunts and uncles have told me of times in the past few months when they’ve had to hand out their own supplies to neighbours to make sure they survived.
The toll the conflict has taken on individuals and families has been a great one. For close relatives who were trapped in the west side of the city, life has been a “living hell” since the start of the conflict.
A home that had been in our family for generations, that was built from years of hard work, was turned to rubble in an instant
“We would hear rockets overhead and not know whether we will live or die,” I was told.
There came a time when several families, including some of my relatives, huddled in the basement of one home or another in order to survive the constant barrage. This was all good and well until these houses, like my mother's childhood home, were destroyed.
A home that had been in our family for generations, that was built from years of hard work, was turned to rubble in an instant.
This is how one of the author's relatives found their home in Mosul when they returned after fleeing (MEE/Mustafa Al-Dabbagh)
Other family members told me about fleeing their homes for safety only to return once the area has been cleared to find the house turned upside down and its content looted by the Iraqi forces and militias.
Or, in the case of my uncle, finding the house occupied by armed forces. Upon confronting them, and asking them to leave so that he and his family could return, he was told, “We rescued you from ISIS, it’s ours now.”
One occupation to another
These incidents are not isolated, with many reports from close families and friends facing similar experiences and hardships. It seems that they have graduated from an occupation by IS to one by the Iraqi army and Shia militias.
To date, no one has been prosecuted and brought to justice for their desertion in Mosul
It seems the events of Mosul have come full circle. It is actions like these by those in power which led to the marginalisation of the Sunnis in Iraq and which gave IS the perfect recruitment ground, ripe with hatred of the government, to swell its ranks.
That coupled with what Anas Altikriti described as the “shameful and disgraceful” way the thousands of Iraqi troops simply laid down their weapons and fled, according to eyewitnesses with whom I spoke, in civilian clothing in the face of several “rag tag” IS fighters is what has brought us to the point we are at now. To date, no one has been prosecuted and brought to justice for their desertion.
On 12 June 2014, IS militants take positions on a street in Mosul (AFP)
The defeat of IS on the battlefield is only the beginning. One has to ask what has happened to the thousands of IS fighters that the government in Baghdad told us about.
No bodies have been seen and only a handful of prisoners taken into custody. Does that mean that they have gone underground and will mount an insurgency? Will they merely wait for the perfect opportunity to rise again in what some call “IS version two”?
Watching and waiting
The responsibility of the next phase lies squarely on the shoulders of the Iraqi government. They must endeavour to keep the Iraqi armed forces and Shia militias held in check, and punish the human rights abuses and war crimes witnessed during the “liberation” of Tikrit, Fallujah and Diyala.
History has a knack of repeating itself, especially in Iraq, but let’s hope that this bloody chapter is closed for good and the mistakes never repeated
They must make sure that the Arab Sunni population is no longer marginalised and their voices and worries are heard. The government must act quickly to rehouse the million or so left homeless as a result of this bloody conflict.
It’s a rather large ask and some are not so optimistic and rightly so. Tallha Abdulrazaq, an Iraq expert at the University of Exeter, told me: “The sectarian Baghdad regime has shown its true colours time and time again. It's only a matter of time before something happens, perhaps worse than ISIS.”
For now, though, one can only sit and watch and see how events unfold. History has a knack of repeating itself, especially in Iraq, but let’s hope that this bloody chapter is closed for good and the mistakes never repeated.
- Mustafa al-Dabbagh is a British-Iraqi independent writer with a special interest in Iraq and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Iraqi children sit amidst the rubble of a street in Mosul's Nablus neighbourhood infront of a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State (IS) group on 12 March 2017, during an offensive by security forces to retake the western parts of the city from IS fighters. (AFP)