17/02/2017 10:43 GMT | Updated 18/02/2018 05:12 GMT

'It Felt Like Life Was On Pause.' Here's What People Told Me When I Visited Mosul


A member of the Iraqi Security forces walks towards the ruins of a church in Hay el Nour in eastern Mosul. UNHCR/B.Ahmed

The first thing you notice when you drive into eastern Mosul is the destruction.

Over the past two months, an effort to retake this part of Iraq from extremist groups has uprooted thousands of families. Aerial bombardments, mortars and small arms fire have become a daily reality and large areas of the city lie in ruins.

Although markets are open and most public health centres have remained largely undamaged, medication is in short supply.

Whatever managed to survive is riddled with bullet holes. Rusty skeletons of burnt-out cars dot newly accessible roads, sometimes even atop buildings.

But what strikes me the most, as our car enters the city, is how normal life is already. There's a lot of traffic. People are going about their business, surrounded by rubble.

Children cycle, weaving their way through piles of debris. Women shop in a market where fruit and vegetable stalls lie alongside bullet-ridden buildings. Some business owners inspect the remnants of their properties and sweep away broken glass.

Literally everyone you speak to seems to have a heartbreaking story to tell -- stories of loved ones lost, missing, tortured. One woman tells me her 20-something-year-old son was blinded in an explosion.

Another woman cries as she rolls up her young daughter's trousers to show me her burned skin. She had been sitting near a heater one evening when an explosion shook their house and caused the heater to fall.

But there is hope amidst the horror.

UNHCR and its partner Muslim Aid have distributed thousands of blankets and quilts to nearly 9,000 families in newly accessible areas of eastern Mosul. As winter sweeps across the city, heaters, water and kerosene jerry cans are helping families to stay warm.

In one neighbourhood, I find Muslim Aid distributing much-needed relief items to 115 families. The distribution takes place to a soundtrack of bullets and loud thuds from air strikes. Kids carry on as though nothing was going on. No-one flinches -- except us.

I ask one man whether these sounds scare them and if they feel safe.

"We don't hear them anymore," he replies. "When it is all you have heard for over two years, it is all you know and you don't even notice it."

Yes, people I meet are very upset about the destruction and often have agonizing tales of loss. But what most of them are concerned about is the future and the lasting effect this brutal episode may have on their lives going forward. Children have been out of school for over two years. Many people have been out of work and without any income for the same. Hospitals have been looted and destroyed, and kids and elderly people have been unable to get essential medication.

Mustapha, who was in his final year of college when armed groups took control, had been looking forward to starting university. He says rebels imposed restrictions on growing beards and not using phones. But the hardest thing, Mustapha tells me, was not being able to go to school.

"It felt like life was on pause," he says, sadly. "The futures we had imagined were suddenly taken away from us."

In some areas, I find that many people chose not to flee, in order to protect their properties. Others did not want to live in camps. Only a few people -- those with the means to leave -- had been able to make it to safer areas nearby and stay with relatives.

Many of these areas had a significant Christian population before armed groups took over. One of the residents of Hay el Sucar tells me that 30% of his neighbourhood had been Christian before rebels arrived.

"Our Christian brothers and sisters were so scared for their lives, they fled in 2014 and have not returned," he says. "Their homes are still empty. We heard that some might return but we haven't seen any of them yet."

People are trying hard to rebuild their lives. Schools are now open for registration and local primary health care centers are slowly opening up again. Some professionals who fled, such as teachers, doctors and nurses, have started to return. Although the local hospital in Hay el Sucar was largely destroyed, residents are adamant that it will re-open and a group of young locals are volunteering to clean it up, to get it running again.

But it will take time and they can't do it on their own. Support from the government and the international community is desperately needed to help people get back on their feet. In the meantime, people like Mustapha can only dream of life as it was before.

"I can't go back to college yet because the college I went to is too close to Western Mosul and it is still too dangerous to go. So I am still waiting to press play on my life."