Even in the context of the vast destruction left by ISIS everywhere across the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, nothing compares to the staggering sight of Mosul’s Old City, where piles of rubble and overturned cars riddled with bullet holes make up half the landscape of the once-thriving city, Crux Now reports.
A year later, the dust is barely beginning to settle after Mosul’s liberation in July 2017. While a few wealthier shop owners have patched up their property enough to get things running again, half of the city of 3 million has been flattened, businesses have been lost, homes destroyed, and every week the body count mounts as more rubble is cleared and more deceased are pulled from the dust.
However, while building costs for the Old City alone are expected to be in the billions, for Mosul’s inhabitants, the city’s displaced Christian population in particular, trust will be the hardest thing to repair, if it is even possible at all.
Father Salar Kajo, who oversees the parish of St. George in Teleskoff, where there are still some 400 families from Mosul who refuse to return, told Crux that “people can’t return because it is still dangerous for them. They don’t feel safe.”
Even though the government says the city is secure, “they are liars,” he said, adding that even if they are not active, ISIS and some sympathizers are still present, “but the government doesn’t say this…I have heard many things there.”
While Christians have been resilient in the face of persecution, they are now fed up, Kajo said, adding that “as soon as a Muslim enters Teleskof or one of these villages, it means the end of these villages. I give my word on this.”
“There is no trust, we are not secure, the mentality is different, and they [the government] consider us second-class. How can you treat people like this? Especially in the time of ISIS,” he said, noting how most militants “were neighbors who stole” and turned against Christians.
Members of an all-Muslim militia who work with local police in Mosul to guard Christian property spoke to Crux, insisting the area is safe. However, Christians themselves appear unconvinced.
Maryam and Wasen Al-Saoor, who are sisters, fled Mosul with gunfire flying over their heads in 2014 three days after ISIS invaded, and they refuse to go back.
Speaking to Crux, Maryam, 21, said “we don’t want to go back, ever. It’s not like the past, everything is destroyed, people are changing…people are different than the past, our neighbors cheated us, so we can’t trust them. If you ask all the Christian people, they will say that.”
Maryam said she has no trust in the people who live in Mosul now, especially those who stayed and lived there under ISIS rule. And she has good reason, since one of their two Muslim neighbors, who had been a family friend for years, joined forces with ISIS once the Al-Saoors fled, and demanded that they hand over their home.
Maryam said that when ISIS attacked, her family stayed inside for three days with no food, no electricity and no water. They had previously fled their home twice before – in 2006 and in 2009 – due to violence and insecurity, but they returned. When ISIS came they decided to flee to Dohuk once they realized the situation would not be quickly resolved.
“We didn’t see them, but we heard the bombs and the shots,” she said, recounting how they hid inside but decided to flee at midnight on the third day, driving with bullets flying overhead as ISIS and police exchanged fire.
Currently there are just 20-21 Christian families left in the city. A Syriac Catholic priest by the name of Emmanuel is desperately trying to get people to return, and a Chaldean bishop and priest are also expected to be appointed to Mosul this week during the church’s synod meeting in Baghdad.
However, according to Maryam, most Christians still distrust Muslims. For most, it is very easy to switch from moderate to ISIS, she said, but “not all of them. There are some people who are nice.”
Wasen said the family is still in touch with their “good neighbors,” who have sent them pictures of their former house, which has been gutted and has bloodstains on the walls.
Maryam said she thinks it is possible for some people to go back to normal, but it will take time. For Muslims who lived in Mosul during ISIS rule, “it’s four years that they are under them, so of course they will need time to be more open-minded,” she said. “They need a long time, because four years is not a short time.”
“If they didn’t do what ISIS said, they would be killed, so they had to do what they were told. But they [also] believe in what they are doing, so if they are believing in what they are doing, it’s hard to change.”
“Before ISIS the situation was okay and it was normal,” she said, “but after ISIS everything was destroyed.”
Looking at the city, it is not hard to understand why many are hesitant to return. With little government intervention over the past 13 months, much of Mosul’s old city is unstable. On average, some 50 bodies are pulled from the rubble every week, and some 1,000 were discovered in the past month alone.
An empty mass grave left by ISIS, which was found holding 52 bodies of people who tried to flee, has been left in its original spot, and a convent which previously housed Dominican sisters and which was turned into a hideout/bomb factory by ISIS has yet to be cleaned, and still stinks of sulfur.
Services remain minimal in much of the old city, and families are living in skeletons of buildings that were bombed and have yet to be secured, meaning they’re at risk of collapse. In one area of the old city with three churches on the same block – the ancient Syrian Orthodox church of Al-Tahera, the Syriac Catholic cathedral and archbishop’s house – a family walked through the ruins looking for the remnants of their former home, now a pile of rocks, Cruw Now describes.