Mosul, 5 years later: Rebuilding a city from rubble

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Fleeing Iraqi civilians walk past the heavily damaged al-Nuri mosque in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. (Felipe Dana/ AP)
Fleeing Iraqi civilians walk past the heavily damaged al-Nuri mosque in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. (Felipe Dana/ AP)

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In 2017, in order to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, Iraqi, U.S. and coalition forces bombed, shelled and razed the city to the ground.

Approximately 10,000 civilians died. Their families have spent the past five years trying to bring their city back.

"You will see rebuilding, you will see reconstruction. You will see decent streets, decent parks," Ali Baroodi, a photojournalist, says. "But still, war scars are not easy to erase overnight, or even in five years."

Today, On Point: A return to Mosul. A city reduced to rubble, and the people who are rebuilding it.


Ali Baroodi, photojournalist, essayist and professor of English and translation at the University of Mosul. Find Ali Baroodi's photo gallery of the destruction and rebuilding of his city here. (@AliBaroodi)

Maria Rita Acetoso, architect and senior project manager for UNESCO’s Iraq office.

Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs for the U.S. Institute of Peace. (@sarhangsalar)

Interview Highlights

When the battle was done, it was approximately nine months of horrific warfare. Can you describe to us what your city looked like?

Ali Baroodi: "When the zero hour was announced in in the middle of October 2016, it was a moment of celebration in Mosul. We all felt that finally we are going to get rid of ISIS. But at the same time ... ISIS does not appear in June 2014, all of a sudden out of a bubble. No. We were kind of familiar with their mentality, starting from 2005 when al-Qaeda almost took Mosul twice in late 2004 and early 2005. So we knew that they will not surrender. They are not going to leave the city overnight.

"The suicide mentality of them is to fight up to the last moment. They rarely surrender. So we expected it to be something, a huge urban battle. And finally, after nine months, liberated, but the cost was too high. It was the second longest urban battle in the world, in the recent modern and contemporary history after World War Two. So after the liberation, when we looked at the campus, for example, where I work, I did not find the campus that I knew. It was mostly destroyed, like the level of destruction reached up to 80% of destruction.

"And it was not all because of the coalition or the army or the battle. ISIS used to treat Mosul as a scorched ground. They used to set fire on every single government facility they left behind. And that's what happened on my campus. And after that, when Mosul was fully liberated, I crossed into the old town because I hear that it is a massive destruction. I wanted to witness it myself and see what happened. What I can say shortly is that as if a tornado went through the old town, as if an 11 Richter scale earthquake, it was not the city I am familiar with. It was full of death, full of destruction.

"Whole neighborhoods were razed of the city cityscape, as we are going to talk about later. The city's cityscape was deformed, like Mosul is defined by the leaning minaret. And all of a sudden it was gone. And I was in a state of shock, and I was asking this question as maybe the people of Mariupol or other Ukrainian cities are wondering nowadays, how is it going to rebuild? How are we going to remove this huge mountain of rubble?"


On the destruction of the Al-Hadba Minaret by ISIS 

Maria Rita Acetoso: "The destruction was massive. The Al-Hadba Minaret lost completely its shaft, meaning that only the two bases were left. And actually, with a partial collapse on one of the sites. ... The prayer hole was also almost completely destroyed with only the dome and few pillars around still standing. The amount of rubble was impressive. All around the two monuments, within the complex. ... The remains were also severely damaged. So the level of destruction at the beginning was discouraging."

On hope for the rebuilding of Mosul

Ali Baroodi: "It was November 2017. The historical bazaar was still in ruins. I was there. I was documenting the place. And the question comes to mind, how is this huge, huge mountain of rubble going to move from that place? It was a moment of despair. It was a moment of black and white. It was a moment of witnessing death and distinct smell of death.

"And all of a sudden, I hear it hammering. Somebody was hammering. And I kept walking, walking and walking and found my legs leading me into the blacksmith's alley of the old bazaar. I found the owners of the shops, and they were using very simple tools to fix their shops. And they were smiling. They say, well, we are happy that ISIS is gone. We are happy that Mosul is back. We are happy to be part of Iraq again. But we need to start working.

"... This hammering, this noise, noise of life that that we are we have always been familiar with attracted the international community, attracted the Iraqi government, the local authorities, attracted everybody to come there. ... That is what I saw. That's what my bare eyes witnessed. And from that day, I look at the bazaar now. Whenever I go there, I just keep remembering that very situation.

"The old town, which has always been buzzing with life, it fell silent for a couple of months. But it is no longer like that. The result is more important, but unfortunately, the riverside facade. There are still some challenges, the historical riverside facade, which was condensed and dense. Populated. The most densely populated area of the old town turned into a heap of rubble.

"And unfortunately, five years into that, it's still like that. There is no solution for that part. Neither from the local authorities nor from Baghdad. I think we keep hearing about the international community and the role of the international community in post-ISIS Mosul. But where is Baghdad? We are part of Iraq. And so what they are doing, it's not fair enough at all."

Do you feel like that there's been a lack of support from the Iraqi government that's hindering Mosul's complete sort of resurrection, if I can put it that way?

Ali Baroodi: "You can put it that way. And when I say Baghdad, I'm saying about supporting the displaced people to come back home, supporting the Christians, for example. Bringing a completely safe environment and assurances that Baghdad is still looking at them as Iraqi citizens. Well, when I am talking about that area of Mosul, I talk about, for example, the Pope Francis visit when he came to Mosul in March 2021. And we are now 18 months after that. What changed?

"Like very, very small proportion of change in that very area, the Christian neighborhoods and the old town. You can see ISIS graffiti is on those houses up to this moment as I documented. And the riverside facade, that's another example of bureaucracy and corruption and lack of support. If you come to Mosul, you will see noise of reconstruction. Yes, that is something. Nobody can deny.

"But again, is it enough? ISIS legacy is not restricted to Mosul only. We have Sinjar, we have the IDP camps. Maybe scores, if not hundreds of thousands are still there. Thousands of girls are still missing. Thousands of people are still in the IDP camps and Sinjar is still in ruins like almost nothing changed there."

What thoughts or guidance would you give the Ukrainian people?

Maria Rita Acetoso: "To believe that the reconstruction is possible. It is a long process, but it's actually something that needs to start from them, but also that needs to be done in a way by them. Because even in the case of Mosul, what we have been doing was to support the [Mosul residents] to rebuild their own city.

"And that's a key approach to reconstruction, because in this way, you can use the physical reconstruction to reconnect people with their own cultural identity and with their own city, with their own life, which is something that such horrible conflicts are taking away from people. So that's actually my suggestion. That what I've seen is that whatever we do makes more sense when it is done with the people from Mosul.

"And that's a critical component, which also has other implications, such as, you know, the fact that the reconstruction can become a source of income, can become an opportunity of skill development that can make the entire process much more sustainable and much more effective."

On how people can rebuild their lives in Mosul

Sarhang Hamasaeed: "Often after conflict, there's a lot of emphasis on physical reconstruction. But actually the communal rebuilding, the rebuilding of lives, of communities and the fabric of society is far more important. And it is the kind of rebuilding that is oftentimes necessary to sustain the gains of rebuilding after a conflict. And in the case of Mosul and the broader province of Ninawa, there was complexities that existed that was bringing some tensions to the city and to the province before the rise of ISIS, and the violence of the takeover.

"The practices of ISIS added to that complexity, made things worse. So when you rebuild and you rebuild the lives of the individuals and the communities, you are starting for a more difficult place than where the conflict actually started. And that involves in the context of Mosul, the diversity that Ali already talked about, where you have Mosul as a city and the province represent the diversity of Iraq, the different ethnic or religious mix.

"They were vying for representation in Iraq's politics at the national level. They were feeling marginalized. So that comes into this picture, as you've heard from Ali already. They continue to feel that way. And then ISIS by design use tactics to divide the society, to use families and tribes against each other. So as we rebuild, we and others are emphasizing programs that connect those people, to work through differences and not only physical barriers to return, but communal, social, economic barriers need to be addressed before people can return and rebuild their lives."

Related Reading

New Lines Magazine: "Mosul’s Walls Tell a Story of Brutality and Recovery" — "The graffiti in the Old City document the brutality of the Islamic State group, the people’s resilience and the bittersweet liberation."

This program aired on December 8, 2022.


Headshot of Stefano Kotsonis

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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