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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Desperation in Mosul's old city one year after ISIS

Homes and lives yet to be rebuilt after heavy fighting that left historic quarter in ruins

Iraqi men distribute food to poor families in the old city of Mosul on August 22, 2018. Reuters
Iraqi men distribute food to poor families in the old city of Mosul on August 22, 2018. Reuters

On a scorching August afternoon, an angry crowd surrounds a small lorry loaded with meat of two slaughtered cows amid the ruins of what was the last ISIS bastion in Mosul.

In a desperate scramble, they grab beef from a man standing in the open back of the truck and, after it pulls away, some stay on to descend on the next one to arrive.

Part of the Eid Al Adha customs, the deliveries on Thursday did little to satisfy people living in the rubble of Mosul's Old City more than a year after ISIS was driven out in a final battle that reduced many inhabitants to homeless beggars.

"There are many residents who need aid in getting food and rebuilding their houses," said Ali Sharif, 24, after taking a bag of meat. "Everyone here was affected by war."

Since Iraqi forces celebrated victory over ISIS, life for the Sunni inhabitants of ancient west Mosul, some of whom welcomed the arrival of ISIS in 2014, has hardly improved. That has left them no happier with the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad they long accused of treating them like second-class citizens.

"We will give this to the poor people here to help them and we ask God to bless us. Our government doesn't do anything [to help them]," said Ali Aga, a local logistics specialist, as he headed into a labyrinth of alleyways to knock on doors and hand over packets of fresh beef.

Many of the Old City's narrow streets remain inundated by wreckage left by the air strikes of US-led coalition forces that helped Iraqi government forces drive out ISIS after nine months of devastating urban warfare.

The remains of some walls look like they are about to collapse. Decayed body parts can still be seen, and smelled, amidst the debris where the most severe fighting raged.

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To help towns laid to waste in fighting that broke ISIS' grip on a third of Iraq, Baghdad set up the Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terroristic Operations.

The reconstruction plan for Mosul and the whole of surrounding Nineveh province targeted 78 projects for 2017-2018 worth 75.5 billion Iraqi dinars (Dh234 million), supplemented by a €135m (Dh659m) loan from Germany, according to figures published by the fund last week.

But experts say rebuilding Mosul alone - which had a pre-war population of 2 million and now has 646,000 homeless - is expected to cost billions of dollars.

"Low budgets compared to size of damage" pose a major challenge, the fund said.

An woman cooks food near a tent where she lives in Iraq's old city of Mosul. Reuters
An woman cooks food near a tent where she lives in Iraq's old city of Mosul. Reuters

In early August, Hazem Mohammed, 52, and his family returned to a heap of debris that used to be his home. He pitched a tent next to it, affording the family a little shade in the 43°C summer heat.

"I decided to live with my family in this tent to encourage the Iraqi government and humanitarian organisations to rebuild my house and other destroyed houses in the Old City," he said.

"We are a poor family. We don't have money to live in dignity. We suffer from lack of food and we don't have enough furniture because it is under the ruins of our house now."

A passing car stopped at the tent and the driver, who gave his name as Mohammed Saleh, handed out a bag of Eid meat.

"I'm afraid that the government's failure to rebuild infrastructure could bring a return of extremism," he said.

Mosul municipal officials and western donors are concerned that the slowness of reconstruction might rekindle Sunni-Shiite sectarian grievances that ISIS exploited.

Even a walk through an upscale district of eastern Mosul, which escaped the worst fighting and where life has largely returned to normality, can be dangerous.

An explosion on Tuesday night in the Hay Al Arabi neighbourhood injured no one but left a roadside crater next to what residents said was the makeshift grave of an ISIS militant killed in battle. The blast might have been an old grenade or part of the militant's suicide vest, one resident suggested.

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