As the dust settles in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, Saker Al Zakaria has taken up a struggle that is crucial to his home town’s future.
The 30-year old activist says the destruction Mosul has endured over the years goes far beyond smashed masonry.
For him, the very identity of Mosul residents and their sense of belonging is at risk.
"This is the natural outcome of wars," Mr Al Zakaria, the founder of a local non-government organisation which works on preserving the city's centuries-old, multicultural identity, told The National.
“After the war, we were shocked at how the city lost its identity and we have decided to deal with this issue.”
Nearly three years after a brutal battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS — an effort led by Iraqi forces — the city is still far from a full recovery. Many of its residents are struggling to get back on their feet.
Despite signs of modest progress, entire districts still lie largely in ruins, a grim reminder of the vicious war. A lack of funding, chronic mismanagement, corruption and political infighting since declaring victory over ISIS has hampered the city’s recovery.
Since 2017, the province has seen three governors following national and local political wrangling over corruption allegations.
“The hands of the local government are chained,” said Deputy Governor for Planning Affairs, Raad Al Abasi, complaining that not enough money is coming from the Federal Government to fund reconstruction.
Mosul, the provincial capital of Nineveh province, was the first city to fall into the hands of ISIS during their blitz in mid-2014. Their campaign of terror ended with controlling large areas in Iraq’s north and west, making up nearly a third of the country.
With support from a US-led International Coalition, Iraqis declared ISIS defeated by the end of 2017. But the price of victory came with a grim toll: tens of thousands of people had died, more than 3.5 million people were displaced and entire towns and neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble.
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Mosul and the surrounding areas boast hundreds of archaeological and heritage sites dating back as early as 6000 BC.
Its historical position on the ancient Silk Road trading route has made it home to a large number of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and religious beliefs. But most of Mosul’s archaeological sites and monuments were demolished either by the militants or during military operations. Extremists turned the colourfully diverse city monochrome after persecuting its religious and ethnic minorities.
That new reality prompted Mr Al Zakaria to establish the Bytna Institution for Culture, Heritage and Arts, last November.
“We’ve already lost big parts of the city…if we don’t take care of it, we’ll lose it forever,” he said while sitting inside his NGO headquarters, overlooking the ruins of the 12th century Al Nouri Mosque which was blown up by ISIS, with its famous leaning minaret. In 2018, the UAE pledged over $50 million to reconstruct the historic local landmark, a project that is well underway.
Bytna, or Our Home, is based in a nearly 100-year-old house in the heart of Mosul’s Old City. With his team, he rehabilitated the rented house to be a “place that deals with the Maslawi identity".
The house walls are decorated with pictures showing life during the city's heyday: Scenes of the Old City's narrow alleys and houses where residents smile to the camera, archaeological and heritage figures, famous writers, historians and dignitaries.
In one room, antique objects from daily life are neatly organised on shelves made of driftwood. Some of the objects, offered by residents as gifts, were manufactured by the city's Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities: a copper tray, a khanjar-style dagger, candle holders, mortar and pestles and pieces of pottery. Some of the objects date back 120 years.
The Bytna Institution also offers visitors the chance to take pictures while wearing Mosul’s traditional costumes, inside an old wooden office. Another room is set aside for children’s activities, while the roof has been turned into a cafeteria, where waiters in traditional clothing serve visitors traditional drinks.
Since establishment, Bytna has hosted more than 40 cultural events, including book-signing ceremonies and symposiums on the city’s history.
Work is under way now to resume activities after coronavirus lockdowns.
Living between the wars
The first blow to the city’s identity was shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with the rise of Sunni extremism: Al Qaida in Iraq soon gained a foothold in the city and surrounding areas.
Then came the ISIS occupation in 2014, an appallingly brutal rule which led to mass displacement. The persistence of this long and dark history has forced many of the local youth to disengage from their city, according to Mr Al Zakaria.
“People here are mentally exhausted,” Mr Al Zakaria said.
“Our aim is to solve these problems by helping ourselves to re-engage and to live in a Maslawi house together.
“Our message is that despite the grave consequences of the war, this city and its youth will stay.”
After ousting ISIS, the Iraqi government estimated that the total cost of national reconstruction was no less than $88.2 billion, for a 10-year period.
Donors pledged about $30 billion, but most of what was promised has not been distributed, and several commitments took the form of loans.
Mr Al Abasi said the local government and NGO efforts have been directed towards restoring public services, rehabilitating streets and removing debris to help displaced people return.
Out of nearly 20,000 demolished housing units, only 7,500 have been rehabilitated so far, he added. And nobody in the province has received financial compensation from the government, due to a lack of money following the collapse in oil prices. The Iraqi government typically prioritises public sector salaries over investment in infrastructure, leading to a major crisis in services and reconstruction.
Until the money is available, major projects -- the reconstruction of two large-scale hospitals, schools and two demolished bridges, will stay idle, Mr Al Abasi said.
In 2019, Baghdad sent 600 billion Iraqi dinars (about $480 million), somewhere between 50 to 75 percent of the province’s minimum need, he said. No money has been sent this year except small amounts to pay salaries, pensions and social benefits, he added.
For 2021, they have asked for 500 billion dinars (about $400 million) to continue the nearly 700 projects started in 2019. But there is no sign yet that they can get this amount.
And yet despite this long list of travails, Mosul remains a resilient city.
Chunks of rubble and twisted iron are still scattered on the city’s streets, but much has been cleared. Cranes continue knocking down unstable structures. Some residents have rebuilt their houses using their own money, mainly in the Old City, and painted them with bright purple, green and violet colours. Other scorched properties are left untouched, hollow shells peppered with bullet holes.
But residents complain of the shabby public services -- mainly electricity, a lack of work opportunities and a delay in government financial aid.
“The people’s patience has limits,” Mr Al Zakaria warned. “If things blow up…we may go back to chaos again and lose more lives.”