Monday marks one year since Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was retaken from Isis. More than 9,000 people lost their lives in what was one of the fiercest urban battles since the Second World War. After seeing the city then, it was hard to imagine it would ever recover.
But signs of hope and a fierce sense of determination are starting to show. A billboard on the outskirts reads ‘I love Mosul’, and I can see people really do. Buildings which once bore the brunt of the battle have been painted in bright colours. Walls once sprayed with bullet holes have been re-plastered and roofs have been fixed. The streets, which used to be deadly quiet, are buzzing with people on the way to the market.
There’s still a long way to go in the Old City, where Isis held out till the bitter end in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where they had declared their caliphate in 2014. Every time I visit the area I’m shocked at how much destruction there is. Buildings have been reduced to rubble following airstrikes, and some streets are still completely impassable. It’s the last part of Mosul that’s been left without any running water – punishing in the 50ºc heat. Incredibly, families are coming home, even though their houses have no roofs and some have walls missing. Some have been living in camps for years and have longed to come home for some time now. To finally be able to do that means a lot.
Despite how hard it is for people to move back to the Old City, they are finding ways to cope. One resident told me last week that around 60% of his neighbours have returned. Everywhere I went I saw work going on to clean up and repair buildings – new electricity cables being installed, rubble being removed and walls painted.
As civilians have returned to piece their lives together, I’ve seen Oxfam teams helping with the reconstruction effort. The international agency has brought running water back to parts of the Old City, supplied water tanks and generators to health clinics and Mosul General Hospital, and repaired key water treatment plants that supply the city.
Recently we visited the University of Mosul which was used as an Isis stronghold when they controlled the city. It’s a big campus and it used to be one of Iraq’s best universities - students travelled from other parts of the country to go there. The fighting left many of the buildings very damaged and some destroyed. Before Isis lost control of the area they set fire to the library, reducing thousands of books inside to ash. It was sad to see heaps of burned books being taken away - all that history and knowledge ruined. You could still read the text on some of the burned pages as they were shoveled into a pile outside.
Raghda, a student at the university, told me she felt utterly hopeless seeing the once busy library so empty with blackened walls and a hole from the roof to the floor where a bomb had hit. “Work is happening to repair the library and other buildings here but we can’t get back what Isis have destroyed - we can’t get back the history that those books represented,” she told me.
I first met Raghda nearly two years ago now, in late 2016, living with her family in a camp in Hassan Sham village. She had lived under Isis control for more than two years, was separated from her dad, and had lost hope of ever going back to university. Even after she moved home to Mosul last year it was bitter sweet. Although she was happy to be reunited with her dad again, she longed to go back to studying but the university was still closed. As soon as they reopened some of the college buildings, she returned and just a few weeks ago she passed all her exams. It was very emotional to see her back at home surrounded by her family celebrating her results. She’s now looking forward to starting a nursing placement at Mosul General Hospital.
Things have improved for some people but rebuilding Mosul is a big job. For there to be stability and peace, everyone needs to play their part. Some people lost everything in the fight against Isis and they will need a lot of support to return home and start again.
Amy Christian is Oxfam’s media adviser in Iraq. Oxfam has helped almost 100,000 in Mosul. For more information, visit here