‘We Have Had Three Years of Our Lives Destroyed’
As the battle for Mosul nears its end, residents pick up the pieces
Cars, trucks and the occasional motorbike trundle along a wide West Mosul highway in the scorching mid-June heat. Most vehicles here show the scars of battle, such as shrapnel holes and shattered windows owing to thousands of concussive blasts from mortars, bombs and IEDs.
On a road in the Al Mansoor district on the southwest edge of West Mosul, two boys riding a battered and dusty motorbike weave through traffic. Laughing, the passenger holds on tight to his friend’s shoulders, hoisting himself up to stand on the bike’s rear seat. With a huge grin, he flicks a peace sign at a passing 4×4 before turning his attention to the road and any potential bumps that could dislodge him from his precarious position.
Life is returning, slowly, to areas behind the front lines in West Mosul. Nearly two kilometers away, the Iraqi Security Forces fight to retake the heavily-defended Old City from the remaining Islamic State fighters who are still holding out.
The campaign to retake the city’s western half has, so far, lasted five months. It took three months for the ISF to liberate the eastern districts, and while the fighting caused extensive damage there, it looks relatively minor compared to the devastation across much of West Mosul, where slower-moving front lines exposed neighborhoods to prolonged periods of urban combat.
But despite widespread damage and the ongoing fighting in the Old City, there is a growing sense of normalcy in the west.
Near the highway, 26-year-old Mahmood works at a small shop selling snacks, drinks and cigarettes. The shop, with its thin metal walls, provides a modicum of shade from the harsh glare of the sun. Despite the heat and dust, and the general destruction in the neighborhood, the store is well kept and tidy. Mahmood is the proud owner, and wears a clean t-shirt and jeans.
“Our home was only damaged a little bit,” Mahmood says. “Some windows were smashed due to air strikes, but we can repair them.”
Two West Mosul residents wave as they drive past shops in the city’s Jadidah district. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
He and his family were some of the lucky ones, as their particular neighborhood was one of the first areas liberated by advancing Iraqi troops. That saved him from the fate of those in the Old City, where Islamic State rounded up civilians to use as human shields.
Mahmood was a student when Islamic State first swept into Mosul. He says he wants to return to university to complete his degree in agricultural sciences and become a farmer. Like so many others, his life was indefinitely put on hold with the arrival of militant rule in Iraq’s second largest city.
His biggest seller, cigarettes, were banned under Islamic State, but business isn’t good at the moment. “There are not many jobs, so people don’t receive pay and have little money,” he says.
Civilians in West Mosul are also still thinner on the ground than East Mosul. Although Mahmood stayed behind, many residents left and remain in camps. A recent UNHCR report stated that since the start of the Iraqi offensive in February 2017, 62,000 West Mosul residents have returned from the 721,000 who fled.
Improvised explosive devices are still present in the city, and living too close to a front line is hazardous. On June 14, a small I.S. force carried out a raid to the south of the Old City in and around the Dawasa district. Reports suggest that at least four residents died during the attack. Many residents who fled do not have homes to return to.
West Mosul also currently lacks basic services, such as electricity, and residents must pay for emergency power from generators. Mahmood and his family receive water from tanker trucks which visit his neighborhood each week.
“I think life will come back better than before ISIS,” Mahmood says.
East Mosul residents were wary of future relations with the Iraqi military. Mahmood, however, views the security forces positively and thinks the only issues will involve the families of those who joined Islamic State. Before the offensive, Iraqi commanders viewed these neighborhoods as more I.S.-friendly. Mahmood disagrees, but says that some of his friends joined the militant group.
“I couldn’t talk to them after they joined,” he says. “It was like they were brainwashed. Once you talk to ISIS they start to control how you think.”
A Mosul resident walks along a street just behind front-line positions where Iraqi forces are fighting Islamic State militants. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The young shopkeeper is not complimentary of the men and women who signed up with Islamic State. Some joined on religious grounds, but the vast majority were in it for the money, Mahmood says. “Many were former criminals who spent time in prison,” he adds.
Islamic State also enticed recruits with a small salary. Local residents suggest young fighters received 50,000 Iraqi dinars a month, an equivalent of $43. Not much, but an incentive when jobs were scarce.
The last three years have been difficult, and Mahmood fears that Islamic State could return. “Even if my father was ISIS I would still tell the authorities about him,” he says.
Even in these finals days of the “caliphate,” in its present form, staying cautious is wise. On June 25, the first day of Eid for Sunni Muslims and the second day of Eid for Shia, an I.S. attack hit Tanak, Rajim Hadid and Yarmuk — three West Mosul neighborhoods — causing civilians to flee.
Although the the Iraqi Security Forces quickly brought the situation under control, further attacks took place in East Mosul as militants terroized the local population.
A few hundred meters away in Jadidah district, Ahmed works in his hardware store. The street where he runs his business isn’t exactly bustling, but it’s a start. Most of the shops here sell equipment for repairing homes — everything from paint to plumbing supplies and tools, most of it trucked in from East Mosul.
Ahmed, a plumber in his late 20s, opened his shop at the beginning of Ramadan. Business is good at the moment. Unfortunately, his other shop is in the Old City and is inaccessible. He has no way of knowing what, if anything, survives of his inventory.
A more personal concern for Ahmed is the fate of his cousins still trapped in the Old City. His last contact with them was a week ago and one of the cousins was ill. “He died not long after because they couldn’t get enough water,” Ahmed says.
“We just want to live in peace. I do have fears about the future, but we hope only good will come — we have had three years of our lives destroyed.”
Salim, a 16-year-old barber, also has a business in Jadidah. “Under ISIS I was a barber, but business was not very good,” Salim says before continuing with a smile. “I couldn’t shave beards and or cut hair properly. I was only allowed to cut a few hairs!”
Salim was 13 years old when Islamic State descended upon Mosul. The young resident is quite the entrepreneur. His small corner shop is stocked to the gills with formerly-banned items, including shisha pipes of all shapes and sizes — and the sweet-smelling flavored tobacco burned by shisha smokers.
Packs of dominoes sit on shelves and prayer beads hang from a hook, items which Islamic State had outlawed. Outside in a display cabinet, Salim has mobile phones — also once tightly restricted — and accessories for sale.
He explains that the reason he sells these particular items is because they are what people missed when the city under militant control. “Business is very good,” Salim says, smiling. “I have sold so many shisha pipes that I need to buy more stock.”
Not too far away, as we talk, we hear the sound of air strikes detonating close to the Old City.
Salim epitomizes those residents who were stuck in a liminal state during the I.S. occupation, and he missed out on three crucial years of learning. “During ISIS there was no school, you just sat at home,” he says, glumly. “It was so boring.”
With students being out of school for so long, the Iraqi government has stated that pupils will skip the years they missed, instead of being sent back three years.
Even then, there are some problems such as large class sizes, as many schools were destroyed, and others are not ready to open yet. The damage will take time to repair. “I have registered to go back to school, but at the moment there are 65 people in each class — before there were just 10!” Salim says.
Two Mosul residents walk along a road in a recently liberated section in the city’s western neighborhoods. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Salim hopes to attend university, but like most 16 year olds he hasn’t decided on a career — at first he says that he wants to be a doctor, then changes his mind to a soldier when asked again.
Islamic State attempted to recruit Salim twice. Both times the teenager dodged the bullet, once by hiding and the second time by ignoring the pushy Moroccan militant who asked him to join the jihad. Though none of Salim’s friends joined the group, he knows of one boy, a classmate, who enlisted.
“I don’t think he was very religious,” Salim says, before adding that he thinks the boy joined so he could use a gun, “like Rambo.”
Salim says that the classmate is now dead, killed in the village of Albu Saif, a former I.S. stronghold, on the second day of the West Mosul offensive. “He [the classmate] was hit by an air strike on the morning that the Iraqi military attacked. He was having breakfast.”
Like Mahmood, Salim and his family worry Islamic State could return. During the militant attack in Dawasa, the family packed its bags, just in case. “We were ready to leave,” Salim explains.
“When ISIS first came to my neighborhood they saw a Shia flag on a house. They killed the owner and his wife,” he says.
He explains that Islamic State killed his brother’s friend, whom the group accused of passing intelligence to the Iraqi Security Forces. Salim says that the militants broadcast footage of executions on televisions in public spaces, a fact which other Mosul residents have confirmed.
“A lot of people were killed, but we don’t know how many yet.”
There is a possible and unintentional side effect of Islamic State’s iron-fisted reign over Mosul. Many of Salim’s friends no longer want to go to the mosque to pray. “They are less religious now,” he says.
In a country where religion is such a strong part of the culture, if what Salim says is true, it’s logical that some may rile against the such a brutal interpretation of religion over the last three years. The physical and psychological scars in Mosul run deep — and the true cost of the war will not become apparent until long after the battle is over.