Even if we work every day for the next six months, we still won’t finish this job – we don’t have enough support or equipment,” says Muhammed Shaban, an officer of the Civil Defence Force in west Mosul, in the exhausted tone of someone who is unable to separate his life from his work.
Shaban and his colleagues were recovering as many as 30 bodies a day in August last year, one month after the fighting ceased. More bodies still lie under the rubble along the banks of the Tigris river, where the last bloody battles were fought. “We are working with our hands and it is so hard,” says Shaban. He is still waiting to be paid.
Thoughts of rebuilding Mosul are far from the minds of the men tasked with recovering the dead. The true number of the lives lost in the battle against Isis here – when, in the final months of the campaign, families trapped by Iraqi forces had no escape from airstrikes and snipers – is not known, but the Associated Press reported nearly 10,000 civilian deaths; the UN found the figure to be 2,521 at a minimum. The old city, once Mosul’s economic centre and beating heart, became a burial chamber.
But when Iraqi forces pushed Isis out of their last urban stronghold in Mosul – leading the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi to declare 10 December a day of celebration – a new job began: the work of moving on.
Across the city, volunteers began to clean streets, libraries and universities – to reinvigorate a city that had been suppressed under Isis.
Progress is slow. Fifteen neighbourhoods were razed to the ground; coalition airstrikes destroyed all five bridges across the Tigris, and power plants, factories and water treatment plants were looted and burned.
Three months on, much of west Mosul seems frozen in time. Furniture and concrete spills out of blasted buildings into the narrow streets. Drivers cross the Tigris on two temporary bridges and swerve to dodge craters in the roads. Corpses are still buried in the rubble. Though roads have been reopened in anticipation of the rebuild, no one knows when it will start in earnest.
Rebuilding has been slow elsewhere in Iraq, too. Parts of Ramadi and Fallujah and all of Sinjar are still in ruins, years after Isis was driven out. The danger now is that the joy of reclaiming Mosul from Isis will be ruined if it isn’t followed by the swift return of security, homes, jobs and schools; by an overhaul of corrupt and weakened institutions; and by a psychological reckoning of what has been lost.
Big money, bigger corruption
The delay is primarily due to questions over who will foot the bill. At a donor conference in Kuwait last month, Iraq asked its allies to help with the US $88bn (£62.5bn) cost of rebuilding the war-torn country. It managed to secure $30bn in pledges of credit and investment, including $3bn from the US (by contrast, the US-led coalition spent more than $14bn on operations related to Isis).
The Iraqi government will have to cover the bulk. Merely stabilising west Mosul so families displaced during the war can return will cost $700m, says Lise Grande, the United Nations Development Programme representative for Iraq. “It is double what we expected because the destruction in western Mosul during the final stages of battle was much, much more widespread than in eastern Mosul.”
Meanwhile, more than 2.3 million Iraqis remain displaced, including nearly 700,000 from Mosul. Peace is not enough for them to return home – they need accommodation, education and employment. For that, buildings and infrastructure must be repaired. With prices forced upwards by the shortage of undamaged housing, many families cannot pay rent, and risk being displaced again.
“The old city is completely destroyed,” says Ahmed Saleh al-Jabouri, Mosul’s assistant municipality director, speaking in his large office on the east side of the city, not far from Mosul University. “I don’t know how much it will cost to rebuild Mosul, but it will be billions of dollars.” The municipality alone owes $7m dollars, he says, including unpaid salaries for street cleaners.
Iraq, struggling under slumping oil prices, has set aside $337m for reconstruction. It hopes foreign investment in reconstruction, transport and business will encourage its nascent private sector to grow, taking some of the burden off the state.
Abdul Kader Sinjari, the deputy governor of Nineveh, says matters are nowhere near that point. “Every factory was destroyed, and the ones that weren’t destroyed were looted – so how can we make Mosul a business-orientated city again?”
Iraq’s bloated and corrupt public sector is also working against it. Dating back to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and UN sanctions in the 1990s, kickbacks and grafts have inflated the price tags of recovery efforts. In 2017, Transparency International ranked Iraq as the 169th most corrupt country out of 180.
Though prime minister Abadi pledged greater transparency after the war, he has not yet succeeded in changing the culture of bribery. There are fears that if it is not addressed, state institutions will not be able to guard against a potential resurgence of Isis.
In November the governor of Nineveh, Nofal Hammadi, was dismissed amid allegations of corruption, but refused to leave office. Residents say the political instability ahead of elections in May and December this year is diverting attention from rebuilding.
When Iraqis head to the polls, they want to see politicians resolved to tackle corruption, not just protecting a system that benefits them, says Sajad Jiyad, managing director of the Bayan Centre, a research institute in Baghdad. “I think some progress is being made, but by and large people are waiting to see the first bit of action, for the government to really tackle corruption forcefully.
“They want to see progress, and I think their patience is starting to run out.”
‘The government is too slow’
“This is my city,” says Ali Nazm, 29, from the backseat of a car as the hulking ruins of Mosul University flash by. He is one of many volunteers who took to the streets to help with the clear-up efforts after the fighting stopped. “If I don’t clean it, who will?”
Forced to quit his studies and sell watches to make a living, he cried when he heard that the terrorist group had torched the university’s library ahead of their retreat. He joined a group of volunteers in clearing the wreckage last April, even while the war still raged on across the river. They salvaged books from the ruined library, and began shifting them to a new temporary library. Volunteers also cleaned up the city’s public buildings so that people could return to work and school.
“We started working because the government is too slow, corrupted and they say they don’t have enough money,” he says. “Look at the city now – we did most of this on our own. If we waited for the authorities, it would still be destroyed.”
It is true that even as the old city remains in ruins, elsewhere in Mosul life is returning to normal. Volunteer efforts have raised morale in the city and contributed to the sense of a victorious Iraq.
On the banks of the Tigris river, a cafe proprietor has fixed up his restaurant, and its picnic tables are full with families eating food they have brought from home. By the side of the road, a group of teenage boys dance to pop music that was banned by Isis.
Recovery is still a long way off, and the future is uncertain. But in this moment, the celebration of life and embrace of the challenge are palpable.
“I can feel Mosul rising once again,” says Dr Adel Bakri, 87, sitting in his sunlit living room with a small cup of coffee. His house, on a quiet suburban street in eastern Mosul, was only slightly damaged by the war. “People are rebuilding their homes and volunteering. Mosul was destroyed many times, and rose again many times.”
But the inverse of that optimism is the fact that the same structural problems prevalent in Mosul before Isis exist now. People in Mosul fear attacks from Isis on the rural areas, and in the city there is little sympathy for those accused of consorting with them.
Though the security of Mosul has been better than many expected since it was recaptured, Isis has reverted to an insurgency. Cells are re-emerging to carry out hit-and-run attacks in rural areas of northern and central Iraq, where pro-government militias are supposed to be in charge. On 18 February Isis ambushed a military convoy near Kirkuk, killing at least 27.
Aside from a renewed insurgency, there are the risks posed by organised crime, corruption and militia fighting, argues Matthew Schweitzer, research fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Centre. He says the government must seize momentum while optimism in the city is high – and before recovery is threatened by a backslide into insecurity.
“God willing, [the government] will take care of us. After Isis we want someone to take care of us,” says Suhail Mizer, a street cleaner. He worked as a baker in west Mosul before the destruction forced him to move east. His daily salary of $8 a day has yet to be paid. “We’re waiting for [west] Mosul to be rebuilt and cleaned,” he says. “That’s the centre of Mosul, and the most important part. If that doesn’t happen then maybe even Isis will come back.”