Ali Al-Assaf is CIVIC’s Country Director in Iraq. Along with our Iraq team, Ali engages with civilians on a regular basis to learn about their protection concerns and thoughts on the security situation in their communities. Two years after the fall of the Islamic State in the historic city of Mosul, civilians have begun to rebuild their lives.
Two years have passed since Daesh—as the Islamic State (ISIS) is referred to in Arabic—was pushed out of Mosul city. While fighting has stopped, the trauma of what transpired during one of the most brutal urban battles in modern history remains.
A short time ago, I visited the old city of West Mosul, where Daesh was entrenched. There I found Moslawis who have returned deeply scarred from what they experienced, but determined to rebuild a new Mosul.
A father in the Shifa neighborhood recounted struggling to carry his three children as they fled the fighting between Iraqi forces and Daesh. Shelling had hit their home, killing his wife and leaving the father alone to care for four young children, including a son who had been shot in the leg. The father gave his best, but was unable to find medical care. Several hours after the attack, the father watched helplessly as his son bled to death.
An old man from Zinjili described to me how bullets “poured down on his family like rain” during the fighting. His young daughter was killed, but he was unable to bury her as he sought safety for the rest of his family. Her body remained on the street for days until Iraqi forces regained control of the area.
Even those who tried to leave were attacked by Daesh while fleeing. A shop owner told me how his neighbor, an elderly and disabled man, lost his entire family – save for one grandson – when the man’s house was bombed. As the 15-year-old boy pushed his grandfather’s wheelchair in attempt to flee, a “Daesh sniper assassinated the boy. The old man’s body was later found in his chair with his grandson still in his lap,” recalled the shop owner. “I can swear that [the old man] died of grief before hunger and thirst killed him.”
Despite these harrowing accounts, resilience is embedded in the DNA of Moslawis. I saw a grocery store open amidst the destruction directly next to a destroyed building containing drums of Composition-4 explosives that had yet to be removed. I spoke with students who have returned to and are cleaning up debris and sitting on the ground determined to learn despite the lack of desks. I met young men and women who are working together to clean up neighborhoods and burying the dead as bodies continue to be found amidst the rubble.
Along with uncleared explosives and the bodies of victims of the conflict, the rubble contains memories of the earlier city. While damaged cars along nearly every street may remind some of the extensive property loss the fighting caused, others see a memorial to lost loved ones. As the owner of one wrecked car shared with me, “It’s not that I want to keep a damaged car. It’s that the car is all I have left to remind me of the time I spent with my family members, most of whom I lost in the very fighting that destroyed my car.”
The fighting in Mosul has stopped for now – and hopefully forever. Residents of the city are determined to move forward. They want to demonstrate that life will – and must – continue despite the grief, sorrow, and destruction. As one young activist from Mosul told me:
“Tomorrow will be better if we start to call for change for the better.”