“The sabotage during ISIS’s time and the war to liberate the city damaged more than 80 per cent of the forest,” Zaid Mousheer Agha, the head of the gardens and forestry department at the Municipality of Mosul, told The National.
“Many of its trees were either cut to be used by locals or burned down, and the whole area was littered with mines and unexploded ordnance,” Mr Agha said.
“Work to remove landmines and explosives is still under way by local and foreign non-governmental organisations,” he added. “Whenever they fully clear a patch, they hand it over to us to rehabilitate it.”
Last year, authorities planted more than 21,000 trees of different varieties, he said.
More than 3,000 trees have been planted so far this year, out of a planned 10,000 to be planted during February and March alone, he added.
Local and international non-governmental organisations are set to donate 5,000 more trees.
Only 60 per cent of the total area of 675 dunams, or almost 0.7 square kilometres, has been cleared and rehabilitated so far, he said.
“It is still not 100 per cent secure and it is still closed to the public. We expect to re-open it within one or two more years,” he said.
Located on the eastern bank of the Tigris in the northern side of the city, the forest was established in the early 1950s, occupying an area of 10 dunams with a nursery to produce seeds for forest trees.
The forest expanded in stages until it covered an area of about 1,000 dunams during its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, various types of trees were planted such as eucalyptus, elm, pine and other varieties that suit the environmental conditions of the city, from cold winters to blazing summers.
The forest has gradually shrunk since the 1980s, when projects were launched to build transport infrastructure and tourism facilities inside the forest.
After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Mosul fell into chaos as insurgency took hold, making the upkeep of the forest harder.
When ISIS swept through large areas in northern and western Iraq in 2014, Mosul city was the crown jewel of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate and the prospects for looking after the forest dimmed. Within two years, the city was under siege.
Then, ISIS allowed locals to cut down trees to be used for cooking and winter fuel, amid an overall blockade of the city, as the group forbade people to leave. ISIS also used parts of the wood as a camp and training area for fighters.
The forest inside Mosul is one of several in the northern province of Nineveh which have been neglected due to mismanagement during decades of war, UN-imposed economic sanctions in the 1990s and the fragile security situation.
But the forest, and its endurance, remains something that Maslawis feel proud of.
“The forests have great symbolism and we are connected to them,” activist Anas Al Taie, the executive director of the non-governmental organisation Mosul Eye, told The National.
“They are the lungs of the city, a tourist destination and a safe shelter for us. They are more than just forests to us,” Mr Al Taie said.
“Losing the forest means losing the identity of Mosul and the tranquillity the people in Mosul used to feel,” he added. “Its absence leads to the change of their behaviour.”
The 32-year-old activist is leading Mosul Eye’s Green Mosul project, which has planted nearly 10,000 trees in different areas in and around Mosul, including the forest inside the city.
According to his estimates, about 70,000 trees have been lost during the war and the province needs about 500,000 trees.
Like many Maslawis, he still has fond memories of the forest.
“I still remember the picnics organised by schools in the forest,” he said.
“Then, the high density of trees allowed only a few sun rays through the forest and the trees were so giant, big enough to embrace,” he said.
“Besides the different varieties of trees, there were also different birds such as the green parrots, storks, migratory birds as well as squirrels, hedgehogs and mice.”