Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was liberated from the occupation of Daesh in July 2017. However, the battle to retake it, led by the International Coalition, deeply damaged the city. Geopolitica.info has interviewed the Iraqi historian Omar Mohammed, Professor at Sciences Po University in Paris, to discuss the ongoing reconstruction process, social initiatives and more. Professor Mohammed is also leading the Mosul Eye Association and is the author behind the Mosul Eye blog. Through his blog he detailed what was going on in Mosul under the occupation of Daesh from the ground, revealing the vicious crimes of the group to the outside world.
Dear Professor, thank you for joining us, it is a real honour. I would like to start asking you about the ongoing reconstruction process in Mosul. The offensive to retake the city from Daesh militants ended in summer 2017, and entire neighbourhoods were destroyed or heavily damaged. Recent reports have underlined that the reconstruction is proceeding at a slow pace. Therefore, I would like to ask you which main reasons are hindering the rebuilding efforts?
Thank you so much for hosting me. When we say that the reconstruction is slow, it is a fact. It is not easy to reconstruct a city that was damaged by 80%; it does not require only funds, but also political and economic stability. Nevertheless, the reconstruction process is ongoing and it’s the most important thing. For example, the old market of Mosul has been completely reconstructed by an initiative of the people. They understood its value as the economical heart of the city and its reconstruction, funded by a popular social fund, took one year between 2018 and 2019. It was an important development, and besides that one we have many other ongoing projects, like the rebuilding of the city’s cultural heritage sites. The most important one is the UNESCO initiative funded by the United Arab Emirates and the European Union, to reconstruct important sites. Contributing to rebuild these places does not only mean reconstructing the physical Mosul, because when we speak of reconstruction, we have also to consider the social cohesion of the city, its social code that was heavily damaged by Daesh. Daesh, as you probably know, destroyed these buildings because of the values they represented, values that were damaged. Therefore, these projects are currently bringing those values back to life. And we have other initiatives, like the reconstruction of over 300 historical houses that represent the very important history of Mosul.
The important issue about the reconstruction of Mosul, in my opinion, is not only its slow pace, but that despite all these efforts none is paying attention to the trauma of the people. When you have people that have heavily suffered, or are suffering from post-trauma issues, even if you manage to reconstruct the whole city the situation is hard to handle, because the population is traumatized.
Another important issue is the political one; the city no longer represents any kind of political value, there is not any political leadership. Mosul has been dragged into the wider national political conflict, which is creating additional problems for the city’s population, who is still living in fear. These are the important questions when we speak about reconstruction efforts. In my opinion, it does not matter if you are able to bring a building back. What matters is if you can make the people enjoy it again.
Finally, a positive aspect is the growing youth movement in the city. It is fascinating to see that young people are eager to continue their life, to pursue a new future, a better one. Many projects are run by the youngsters, they are contributing positively to the reconstruction of the city.
Alongside International Organisations there are some actors, like private entities and foreign states, and you have already mentioned some, that have manifested their interest in working to restore the city of Mosul or are already doing it. Can you tell us which are the main actors, and how they are involved in the reconstruction of Mosul?
The physical reconstruction of the city it is mainly sponsored by the European Union. The EU is involved in many important projects, and it is also financing the recovery of agricultural areas in Mosul, Sinjar and in general the Nineveh governorate. As you probably know, the Nineveh plains make up 60% of the entire agricultural area, therefore there are many projects around it. Other entities, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are working on small scale projects like “cash for work”.
The UAE and the EU are funding the reconstruction of important sites like the al-Nuri Mosque, the Al-Saa’a Church and the Catholic Al-Tahera Church which was visited by Pope Francis. The UN and its agencies, for example the UNDP but also many others, it is hard to track all of them, are contributing to the physical reconstruction, while also helping to rebuild peace buildings and to reconstitute the social cohesion of the city. Besides all these initiatives there are also many public ones, from the people. And then, this brings in a question. There is always somebody asking me “Where is the Iraqi government in all of this?”. In fact, it is absent, it is not contributing, zero funds are coming from the government. Most of the recovery is coming from international funds and the local population.
Last November Mosul Eye Association launched the Green Mosul Initiative, an urban greening project, which will last until the end of next February. Can you tell us more about the scope of the project and its future, who is supporting it and how we can support it, and what it does mean for Mosul and its people?
This is one of the most beautiful projects I have run for Mosul Eye. It is called Green Mosul; its name comes from the city of Mosul itself which was used to be called Green Mosul. But when we look at the city, it is not green anymore. Therefore, we thought that an initiative was needed to rehabilitate the green space of Mosul, but also to reconstruct a better environment for the people, and to contribute to enhance their mental health. The project is funded by the Crisis and Support Centre of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The trees have been planted in almost any corner of Mosul, in its old city, outside schools, universities, churches, synagogues, mosques and military buildings. We also have introduced the concept of “green heritage” where we transform old historical sites into green sites to promote them and better preserve them.
We try to involve everyone, from civilians to the military, from children to people with special needs. People around the world can plant a tree with an attached personal message, it’s a way to connect Mosul to the world. We initially started also because we want to raise awareness about climate change, a very important issue that we need to face right now. The water issue, for example, is specifically a big challenge; therefore, while implementing the project, we made sure to use only recycled water.
The project was also about facilitating communication between the population and local authorities. This is one of the biggest problems in Mosul, the distrust between the people and those in charge. But now we will be able to create links between them and among different communities; you will see Yazidis planting trees in Muslim sites and vice versa. It is a very important outcome for us. Overall, the Green Mosul Initiative is a collective project that I always attribute to the people of Mosul. It is for them, it is about them, it is their own project.
In what was a truly historic visit, last March Pope Francis travelled to Iraq, and visited Mosul. He moved around countless ruins, paid respect to the city, talked to its people, and finally prayed in Church Square. I know you had the opportunity in late October to meet him in person and then a tree was planted in his name within the Green Mosul Initiative. I would like to ask you what the Pope trip to Mosul meant for you, and what was the importance of such a visit for the city, its people and Iraq.
I have always considered the visit of Pope Francis as the most honest paid to Mosul, because he would not have lied about what he saw. He always speaks about human suffering and when he went to Mosul he saw the real suffering, with his own eyes, and he was able to communicate it to the rest of the world.
The visit by His Holiness was a historical moment, and when you look back at the moment he was praying, you can see most of the attendants were ordinary people. Because Pope Francis in Mosul communicated directly with the people of the city, not with officials or the élite, but with those that have suffered from this war. And the question he then raised was important. Who has sold all these weapons, and who brought here all these weapons that have destroyed the city?
As you said, I had the opportunity to meet him personally in his residence. He told me that he is now able to put a face to the suffering he witnessed in Mosul. I had never seen a person heavily impacted like him by what he had seen in Mosul. The visit of Pope Francis also gave to the city renewed importance. French President Emmanuel Macron later visited Mosul and other important personalities are planning to do so. It was important to show the people of Mosul that their city is still important. The Pope sent the message that despite all the destruction, these people’s city matter to the international community and to humanity. It brought hope to the people, he was able to touch the wounds of the souls of the city of Mosul.