The horrific is set against the hopeful

Published 18 March 2020 in:

It is just over two and a half years since Mosul was liberated from terrorist organisation Daesh’s reign of terror. Staff at the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad have visited Mosul to see the reconstruction of the city at first hand. Ambassador Lars Ronnås recounts a day when the horrific was set against the hopeful.

We’re travelling with staff from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), who are showing us around places where activities to build up what the war destroyed are under way.

Towards the end of the day, in the car returning to Erbil, the main city of the Kurdish region, we try to marshal our observations. Factual impressions are mixed with the emotional. The enormous destruction, city blocks in ruins, a hospital turned into a skeleton of twisted reinforcement bar and lumps of concrete, people going about their everyday lives…

The horrific is set against the hopeful.

For instance, when we sit in on a lesson in a classroom of pupils, all of whom are 7–10 year-old girls. The subject of the lesson: how to deal with the risks of IEDs that still remain in their surroundings. In what other normal school classroom is the abbreviation ‘IEDs’ clearly understood? IEDs – Improvised Explosive Devices – are homemade bombs that are used to maim and kill.

The pupils have their own memories of siblings, cousins and neighbourhood children who have been affected. The pupils are now to learn how to avoid any remaining, hidden or apparently innocent explosive objects. They could be buried landmines, booby-trapped doors in ruined buildings or a plastic bottle in a pile of rubbish, full of something other than water. The level of inventiveness is high.

With the help of posters, the pupils learn how to recognise different explosive objects, handle different situations and take precautionary measures. Do not run around as you like. Stick to secured paths.

Here, IEDs are not an unfamiliar subject at school. For each question, at least 10 hands are raised, and the pupils are keen to answer.

UNMAS supports this risk training, which is intended for children. They know what they are talking about. In large parts of Mosul, UNMAS conducts activities to remove explosive objects. The number of objects is 47 000. So far.

Almost 2000 objects have been homemade bombs found at bridges, in hospitals, schools, water treatment facilities. More than half of them were suicide vests, often removed from human remains.

The job done by UNMAS is delicate work. Step by step, area by area, its team of staff goes over ground to identify and remove mines and IEDs.

They train and engage locals – not least women – to search the areas. The work provides income for the residents. It works, and so far no one has been hurt during UNMAS’s operations.

We visit a war-damaged house, a home for a large family in the old part of the city. UNDP’s local head of construction presents the project that so far has meant that more 4 600 houses have been rebuilt in western Mosul to house more than 60 000 people. Project plans showing what is being done hang on the walls of a beautiful atrium.

The head of the house, an older woman, points to a cellar: “We lived there for more than 10 months on bread and water.” Her grandson survived a rocket attack, but is still in shock; he does not go out, does not want to speak to anyone.

We ask the local mukhtar, the head of the neighbourhood, what he sees as his primary task. The war has of course not only destroyed buildings, but also ripped up trust and severed ties between people. Between those who have fled and returned and those who remained. The answer is evasive. And why tell temporary visitors what there might be to say?

The visit moves on to a water treatment facility, which now provides almost 100 000 people in 11 districts with water. The facility was destroyed during the war and the lack of clean water was acute. Iman Chahine is the head of the facility and there is no mistaking her sense of purpose. The UNDP representative admits that they have been forced to rethink their plans because of the demands placed by Chahine. It also turned out better her way.

Daesh’s extreme oppression of women is gone. But in society, an outdated view of women still thrives. And yet the clean water still flows. We leave the water treatment facility, happy to see the UNDP emphasise that it is being repaired thanks to Swedish development assistance.

The final stop is the University of Mosul, previously one of the foremost in the region with more than 45 000 students. We enter the main university library, a building blackened by soot, with storeys without walls and floors pocked with craters from rocket-propelled grenades.

The library – the very symbol of knowledge and learning – was an obvious target for Daesh. The books were burned. All traces of civilisation had to be eliminated.

Next to the library is yet another destroyed building, the university’s great hall; its 3 500 square metres were used for ceremonies, conferences and theatre. Inside, a huge ghostly hall is revealed. Row upon row of seats, 500 or more. And all that remains are the blackened steel frames. Reinforcement mesh resembling a grotesque spider’s web dangles from the ceiling.

Sweden is one of the foremost donors to the UNDP and UNMAS in Iraq, and funds are used for reconstruction following the devastation caused by Daesh. A major part of their efforts are conducted in Nineveh province, where Mosul is located. This takes place within the framework of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) as decided by the UN Security Council.

Daesh ruled various provinces of Iraq for several years and controlled a large territory. It took over the city of Mosul in June 2014. Iraqi forces, supported by a global coalition, fought for almost ten months to retake the city. Mosul was liberated in July 2017. Large parts of primarily the western section of the city and the old city centre were destroyed by persistent bomb and rocket attacks.

Daesh remains active in different parts of Iraq. The organisation does not control any areas, but regular armed confrontations take place between it and the Iraqi security forces and militia units.