A few days ago, Mahmoud Saeed boarded a plane for a trip that is sure to be filled with trepidation.
He wasn’t a Californian returning to a wildfire-singed Sonoma County town, or a Puerto Rican going back to a home that collapsed in Hurricane Maria’s fury.
Still, he knew what he might find. And at the same time, he couldn’t fully prepare for the scenes of devastation that would await him.
The acclaimed Iraqi author had not seen his beloved hometown in six long years. And while Mosul had been freed from the so-called Islamic State, it would never be the same.
He knew that when he finally arrived, the city that shaped him from a young boy to manhood would be unrecognizable. Mosul had survived thousands of years of myriad rulers and cultures, but ISIS dealt it a death knell.
It captured Mosul in June 2014, butchered thousands of people and prompted an exodus from Iraq’s second largest city. Harrowing accounts of suffering and survival surfaced in the ensuing months.
A year ago, Iraqi forces launched a military campaign to oust the hardline extremists from Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province. By the time Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in the city in July to declare victory, nearly 900,000 people had been displaced from their homes.
And Mosul was destroyed.
In the eight hard months of fighting, more than 500 buildings were obliterated and thousands others damaged, United Nations satellite imagery shows. Hardly a structure went unscathed in the historic Old City on the west bank of the Tigris River, where the fighting was fiercest. Nothing was left of Mosul’s heart and soul except charred and mangled structures.
ISIS burned books and bombed ancient sites, including the famed al-Nuri mosque and its leaning al-Hadba minaret that had graced the Mosul skyline for decades and engendered a sense of belonging for its native sons and daughters. The mosque was to Moslawis what the Eiffel Tower is to Parisians. Now residents say they hail from the city of the bombed mosque.
The destruction was apocalyptic, far greater than anyone had expected.
Saeed and his fellow Moslawis had watched from near and far. With their own eyes or through the eyes of their relatives. On television and in newspapers.
Saeed knew what to anticipate, and yet he braced himself. How can anyone prepare for something like this?
In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Saeed had been persecuted for his words. He eventually fled and found freedom as a writer. But he was forced into the hard life of a refugee in Chicago, and the longing for home grew.
He felt helpless as Daesh, the Arabic name for ISIS, took hold and his family in Mosul cowered under militant rule. Earlier this year, he says, his sister’s grandson was beheaded.
“I cannot fully feel until I see it for myself,” he told me before embarking on his long journey home. “Maybe then, I can write about it.”
But the forces that destroyed Mosul are unlike wildfires that can be doused, hurricanes that eventually stop churning or even guns that finally fall silent.
Beyond the herculean task of rebuilding that lies ahead, Iraqis cannot be certain ISIS is gone forever. I spoke recently with Saeed and several other Moslawis who I had interviewed last year as the battle for Mosul began.
I heard two main themes in what they told me. A return to normalcy would be a long and laborious undertaking. And, beyond the deaths and destruction, the hardline extremists had put a firm end to something critical that had already been eroding in Iraq: trust.
Lack of trust
Mohammed Al Mawsily was already fighting ISIS when Iraqi forces launched their assault on October 17 last year. Except Al Mawsily never picked up a gun. His war consisted of two things ISIS hated: music and truth.
He and two partners started a pirate radio station for the million or so people trapped in Mosul after ISIS began its tyrannical reign. They called it Alghad, or Tomorrow, in hope of a better future.
I met Al Mawsily in Iraq last October when everything about the radio station had to be kept underground, including his identity – Al Mawsily is not his real name; it means “from Mosul.” He risked his life so Iraqis around the world could listen to the otherwise silenced voices of Mosul.
Mosul is now free of Daesh, Al Mawsily tells me over the phone, but he has not stopped telling stories from his hometown, one that is still in chaos.
He describes a city that has no rule of law, no coordinated traffic flows. A city that is divided – all the bridges linking the west and east banks were destroyed. Although some temporary bridges have been put up, they are not enough for Mosul, which once boasted 2 million people. It can take hours to cross the Tigris these days.
East Mosul is a paradise compared to the west, where people lack clean water, electricity and access to health care. The need to handle traumatic injuries has shifted to rehabilitation and longer-term care, but few hospitals and medical facilities have the resources to step in.
And then there is that word again. Trust.
People don’t trust that hundreds of millions of dollars of UN aid is being spent to rebuild Mosul, Al Mawsily tells me. They’re aware of high levels of corruption in Iraq and see little evidence of progress.
They lack confidence in the Shiite-controlled Baghdad government to do right by them. They question the allegiances of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite militias controlling their Sunni-majority city. For the first time in his life, Al Mawsily says, he is routinely witnessing Shiite parades, which have the potential to stoke ethnic tensions.
The lack of trust permeates and taints every aspect of life.
“Under Daesh, people were betrayed by their relatives and neighbors,” he says. “And what of the Daesh supporters and their families? How will they be treated?
“Today, we have a city that is semi-paralyzed.”
People are looking for work, he says, but where are the jobs? Meanwhile, rents in East Mosul have skyrocketed as the western half remains in darkness.
“We are facing quite an impossible mission to return to normal,” Al Mawsily says. “We need an extraordinary effort to heal the city.”
If that effort is not mounted, if the problems are not addressed, then ISIS will be back. That is Al Mawsily’s fear.
‘We can’t cry. We can’t complain’
Others I speak with agree with Al Mawsily’s dire prediction. One, a historian and blogger from Mosul who also risked all by publishing words that were anathema to ISIS, made a list of tasks he says need to be tackled immediately. Among them:
• Build a local police force with training and expertise and prevent other forces with sectarian agendas from exercising authority in Mosul.
• Turn over reconstruction to private and foreign companies.
• Establish a security and judicial system in conjunction with government ministries, civil institutions and the UN. Ensure fair trials for those charged with ISIS crimes.
• Rehabilitate the Old City in accordance with its previous style.
• Establish a council to oversee all religious sects and monitor discourse to prevent hate speech or extremism.
“It will take years to finish the basics,” the historian tells me over the phone. His blog is called Mosul Eye. He still wants his identity shielded for fear of repercussion.
“We have to deal with the consequences of living under ISIS for three long years,” he says. “The government alone will not be able to resolve things. Mosul needs an international force to return to normality.”
It’s imperative to build new bridges to reconnect the eastern and western banks of Mosul, he says. It’s imperative that aid agencies relocate from the Kurdish autonomous region and base themselves in the city. And that Iraqis support the younger generations, forever scarred by month after month of darkness.
“They need to forget a terrible three years,” says the blogger. “Mosul has lost its identity. We need to work to regain it.
“What do young people need? They need options. They need a job, to go to university, sit at a coffee house, use social media. These should be normal things for them. But in Mosul, they don’t have this.”
The historian set up Mosul Eye to inform the rest of the world of the bleakness of life under ISIS. He gave accounts of executions and torture, of days spent in fear and of openly defying ISIS by listening to Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. Music was one of the few ways to escape the nightmare, if just for a few minutes.
“I witnessed things I will never be able to forget,” he tells me.
His own brother was killed during the battle for the west bank in February, one of 26 relatives he lost. Almost every Moslawi has a similar story to tell.
“All our lives were destroyed in front of our eyes and we are unable to do anything. We can’t cry. We can’t complain. We can’t move. We just watch the destruction.”
There is silence on the phone.
I try to imagine how it must feel to see a cherished hometown demolished before you. It is, he says, as though your mother died.
“Mosul can never be the same again,” he says.
But perhaps it can be better.
The Mosul Eye blogger refuses to stop dreaming of the day that his beloved city will be alive again with music, art, libraries, markets and festivals. He looks into the future and sees a modern and developed Mosul growing from the ashes – one that attracts tourists from around the globe.
More than anything, he sees a city that is free.