With war over, Mosul faces its next battle: recovery

Iraq, September 29, 2017

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  • In the aftermath of the battle for Mosul, nearly 1.5 million people have been affected and the need is immense. Mercy Corps is distributing emergency supplies and cash to support families as they begin the hard work of recovery. All photos: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Ayad’s children nap on the dirt floor inside their tent, dusty sandals splayed beside them. In this desert displacement camp, Ayad grieves that their lives have morphed into a series of water collection and food distributions, but they have nowhere else to go. Their home was razed nine months ago.

In Mosul city, Faiza fills a small plastic tub with what water she can spare, improvising a pool to keep her six grandchildren cool. The heat is sweltering in the bullet-pocked shelter they now share with five other groups, but Faiza can’t afford a fan. There is no work, and she’s been borrowing money just to keep her family fed.

In another neighborhood, Samer* sits in the cramped courtyard of his rented shelter trying to catch relief from the same heat. He rubs what is left of his tender legs—both of which were lost after hitting a roadside bomb—as his young children run circles around him. As he describes what they are facing, he calls to his wife for confirmation, but she doesn’t respond. The blast took her hearing.

“We were rich people once,” Samer says wearily. “We helped people in need. Now we are the ones who need help.”

‘They lost their humanity’

Leila and her family fled Mosul when the fighting began. All their belongings have since been destroyed, including their house, leaving them in dire need of food and safe shelter.

Before this—before the city fell to ISIS, before the excruciating battle to liberate it—Mosul was a historic, vibrant city where 2.5 million people built their lives.

Parents sent their boys and girls to school with colourful backpacks draped over their shoulders. People gathered on the banks of the Tigris river, laughing and roasting fresh fish on the tree-lined shore. Families packed streetside cafes. Students filed through the doors of the university library, thick textbooks wrapped in their arms. Men and women tended to the city as doctors, policemen and teachers. Centuries-old architecture peppered the skyline. Life was everywhere. People were happy.

That was before.

When the battle to reclaim Mosul began last October, after three years of rule under ISIS, the choice to stay or leave wasn’t an option as much as a gamble: flee and risk being shot by snipers, or stay and brace for the bombs.

Quick facts about the battle for Mosul ▸

“Some people prepared to stay and protect their property, and they did not want to jeopardize their lives and their kids’ lives,” says Hassan Waleed, Mercy Corps’ emergency response programme manager for Mosul. “Others thought, ‘I’m dying either way. Let me take my chances and flee.’”

Access to vital necessities—fuel, water, electricity—was cut off. Basic foods reached exorbitant prices; 1 kilogram of rice alone cost £15 USD. No one—civilian or fighter—was safe from the daily onslaught of explosions and gunfire. Nearly a million people were forced from their homes, many of which were bombed and shelled with residents still inside.

By the time the city was declared liberated nine months later, it had suffered a battle so severe it has since been called the most brutal urban combat since World War II.

Because of the situation in Mosul, Bouchra’s children—one daughter and three sons, including 11-year-old Ahmed—haven’t been to school in more than two years. Her husband was shot during the battle for Mosul city, so it’s now up to her to put their lives back together.

Once-colourful city blocks lined with schools, churches and parks have been reduced to piles of rubble and twisted metal. Families have been severed. By some estimates, 40,000 people have been killed and many more injured.

Those who remain are left to salvage their lives in a city covered with 11 million tons of residential debris and so many leftover landmines the United Nations estimates it will take a decade to clear them.

This is the hard truth about war: to experience it is one thing, and to survive it is something else entirely.

“War always has a domino effect,” says Waleed. “It doesn’t end by announcing victory or liberating an area. People suffer. They will carry on wounds, physical and mental. People died—nothing will solve this.

“It takes a really big effort just to recover, to help those people come back to proper life and decent life. They are somehow breathing, walking and eating, but they lost their humanity, their idea of being a human.”

A lifeline of support

Marwa and Thaa’er’s sons, Othman, 7, and Ali, 13, in their temporary home. With his father unable to work, Ali tried to get a job as a construction worker to help support his family, but he only worked three days—he wasn’t able to carry the heavy loads of supplies and equipment.

“I am so tired,” Marwa says.” Her husband, Thaa’er, has Parkinson’s disease and was severely injured in an explosion near their home. His poor health prevents him from working, and they have four children to support. “We have no money for medicine,” she says. “If there is food, I eat. If there isn’t food, I don’t eat.”

Meet more of Mosul's children ▸

Across Mosul—and especially in the historic west side of the city—at least 8,500 homes have been leveled and many more are fragmented and in disrepair. Nearly 100 kilometers of roads are damaged. Public services, including water, electricity and medical care, are debilitated. Job opportunities are gone. And the need is enormous.

Of the 1.5 million people who have been affected, most, like Marwa, are struggling to meet every one of their basic needs.

“Every single household has a story that definitely will break your heart,” says Waleed. “The stories that you hear are horrible, horrifying. It’s beyond our imagination.”

Mercy Corps has been responding to the crisis in Mosul since the month after the first clashes began, aiding those who fled the violence and providing hygiene kits, cooking materials and shelter supplies to help them survive.

In the wake of this disaster, we’re beside—and we’ll stay beside—families still in Mosul city with cash and support to meet their needs as they slowly begin the hard work of recovery.

Tens of thousands of people have so far received emergency funds to purchase medicine, clothing, shelter and other urgent priorities. The cash is a lifeline that brings not just immediate practical reprieve, but relief to stop worrying about today, and start thinking about tomorrow.

Learn more about the benefits of cash aid ▸

Diana (right) shares a shelter with her husband, Hatem, his parents, their two baby daughters Sidra and Asil, and several other family members. The house is standing, but badly damaged. With cash from Mercy Corps, the couple purchased clothes, food and milk for Sidra, who has a disability and can’t eat solid food.

Sadoon was injured by shrapnel when a mortar hit his house in west Mosul. With his first cash disbursement he was able to pay his medical bills, and with the second he plans to buy food for himself and 11 family members.

Faiza (centre) with her grandchildren and nephews. Faiza’s home was destroyed and her car burned. There is nothing left there, she says. Emergency cash has helped Faiza ensure her family's needs are met in the temporary home they share with five other groups.

For people like Faiza, that makes all the difference.

Back in her family's shelter in east Mosul, she keeps one eye on the kids splashing in the makeshift plastic pool, and chases Yusuf, her 1-year-old grandson, around the next room.

“All day I’m running after them!” she says with a tired laugh.

Like so many others, Faiza lost everything in the conflict, not least of all her ability to support the people who depend on her. And with her grown children often out searching for work, daily childcare for the little ones falls to her—giving her plenty to worry about.

Now, at least, providing food and shelter isn’t one of them.

“This cash saved us,” Faiza says.

How you can help

We’re committed to helping Iraqis survive this crisis and rebuild their lives no matter how long as it takes. But we need your help. Here’s how you can join us:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Iraqi families and people in crisis around the world.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.

*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.