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When the Left Side is the Only Hope Left: The Destruction of Mosul

I wrote recently about the field research I conducted in the early months of 2020 for an international organization supporting Iraqi youth. The research focused on young boys and girls attending sessions in different parts of Iraq to engage in dialogues and conversations about pressing issues in Iraqi society such as citizenship, gender, culture and heritage, media, and other critical topics. As part of the research, I had the opportunity to make quick day trips to Mosul to observe. Today I would like to share with you a glimpse of the destruction, pain, and heartbreaking stories that I saw and heard in Mosul. The unimaginable atrocities inflicted on this city by a group of mercenaries known as ISIL should undoubtedly be considered one of the most horrendous crimes of the twenty-first century. The most incredible thing about ISIL is its name. It is incredible for two reasons: first, because the name disguises how this group came to be and who created the perfect circumstances for its existence. This group of mercenaries has been directly and indirectly created, funded, and armed by regional and international states whose main purpose was to destroy Syria and isolate its government in proxy wars, and to discipline any parts of Iraq where there has been a strong objection and resistance to Iraq’s occupation from the start.

The second reason why its very name – ISIL – is incredible is because it is so misleading that it distracts people, media, and anyone who wants to understand what is happening on the ground from ever covering its atrocities in a meaningful way. It totally disguises its creators and supporters (just as is the case of al-Qaeda before). This disguise prevents us from holding those truly responsible for these atrocities. The attention should not only be on the mercenaries committing crimes, but even more so on those funding, enabling, and secretly supporting them. As such, I propose that we change its abbreviation from ISIL or ISIS into a new name that contains the initial letters of each country or lobby that contributed to its existence. Furthermore, we must never forget that all these atrocities are part and parcel of the long list of the consequences of occupying Iraq. As journalist  Seumas Milne wrote  in the Guardian back in 2015, “there was no al-Qaida in Iraq until the US and Britain invaded. And the US has certainly exploited the existence of Isis against other forces in the region as part of a wider drive to maintain western control.” Moreover, Milne reminds us, “this US and western habit of playing with jihadi groups, which then come back to bite them, goes back at least to the 1980s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which fostered the original al-Qaida under CIA tutelage. It was recalibrated during the occupation of Iraq.” These facts should never be forgotten if the world genuinely wishes to hold those responsible for causing all these atrocities accountable for what ISIL has done and continues to do in Iraq and Syria.

In case the world is still not getting it, the destruction of Mosul’s culture, history, and people must be considered as one of the biggest crimes committed in the twenty-first century. The only thing more frightening than the crimes committed in Mosul is the world’s indifference to them. We should be very concerned about this indifference for two reasons: first, because it shows the extent to which the world has become desensitized to destruction, erasure, and the horrific crimes committed against humanity. This means that we should expect many more of such crimes to take place for the rest of the century, if humanity is fortunate to even survive this century. Such crimes have become the norm for a very simple reason: the world’s indifference to them means that they have been normalized. Nothing is more dangerous than normalizing war, crimes, and injustice. Hearing about any single human life lost anywhere in the world should never ever become old news. Second, the world’s indifference to what was done to Mosul shows that we are now actually living through the very processes of history creation during which those with more power are perfectly capable of committing such crimes in cold blood and getting away with them. Why are they getting away with them? Because they are getting little or no objection from the rest of the world. So, dear readers, now that I have clearly expressed my sincere explanation and analysis of the destruction of Mosul, let me take you on a day trip to a city that used to be one of Iraq’s most educated, tidy, and vibrant places to get a glimpse of what I saw. There is, of course, always hope and resilience, especially when it comes to the hard work people in Mosul are doing to rebuild, recreate, and rise from dust and ashes under which they were buried by the world’s indifference.

Is it possible to write about Mosul without feeling as if I am chewing on a mouthful of rubble, blood, and broken glass? At the end of my day trip in the city, I realized that the stories I went to capture weren’t just happening in the clubs where young people met to discuss pressing issues about Iraq and its future. As I started reading my notes, I realized that the story I wanted to tell about Mosul started the moment the driver, Mohammed, picked me up in Erbil to take me to the youth clubs. After meeting and greeting, Mohammed started telling me about some of the most horrific stories he encountered in Mosul during the ISIL years, including when he worked at a local NGO as a caseworker. “How can you not be traumatized and suffer sleepless nights when dealing with a story of a 13-year old boy who was escaping for safety with his parents and sister from the right to the left side of Mosul, while it was being liberated by the Iraqi army?” Mohammed paused, lit a cigarette, rolled down the car window, and continued, “as they were running, the father wanted to make sure the road was clear, so as soon as he ventured out, he got a bullet in his head from a sniper. The mother ran to him crying and screaming. She, too, got a bullet in her head. As the little boy and his sister tried to escape, the girl was shot, but she didn’t die. After hiding in a nearby building for a while, they came out and took their parents’ bodies to bury them in that same empty building they took as a shelter. Once done, as they were leaving, the little girl got yet another bullet and died this time. The 13-year old boy survived, but did he really survive? Can even a person who hears this story survive it?”

Mohammed made several references to the “right side” and the “left side” of Mosul during our conversation in the car. At first, I didn’t dwell much on this reference. I understood that it simply meant that the right side received much more destruction and death than the left side of Mosul. Even after liberating Mosul from ISIL, I learned that the left side was liberated first, and most people moved there to resume “normal” life. The left side is livelier and more vibrant today, while the right side was completely destroyed. With all the destruction the people of Mosul have witnessed, there is still much determination and pride felt when they talk about their attempts to bring life back to Mosul starting from the left side. Every Mosul resident knows the meaning of being stuck in the right side of the city during the battle with ISIL. They can’t tell any story without mentioning the right side. It is the side of horror and trauma for Mosul’s people.

Later, while paying a quick visit to one youth club, the project manager told me that one of the female participants had lost all her family members who were killed by ISIL. She and her mother are the only survivors. It was yet another story like that of the 13-year old boy the driver Mohammed shared with me earlier that morning. They learned about her horrific story, which also took place in the right side of Mosul, when the program facilitator asked participants why they were interested in attending the session, and what did they hope to get out of it. The participant, Shahad, told them her heart wrenching story of losing her family and ended with her reason for being there: “I am here because I want a place from which I can start over.” I introduced myself to Shahad but decided that I wasn’t going to ask her about her traumatic story. As a war survivor myself, I know better. I know that such stories are not easy to be told repeatedly to strangers. She had just met me. A long time ago, I learned to only share my war stories (I have many) with people with whom I feel a genuine and deep human connection. These stories are at once precious and painful – they need to be earned. They must be deserved by those who hear them. As such, I told Shahad that I hoped to see her in the future so we may continue to chat about her life and her experience. I wanted to deserve her story. Sadly, the pandemic prevented this from happening. Wherever Shahad is, I send her my warmest wishes and support.

As the day went on, I heard many more references about what had happened on the right side of Mosul. As soon as I arrived in another club, which was meeting at a café where 25 participants had gathered to discuss the topics of identity and gender. Participants were there not only to share ideas, laughter, and friendship, but indeed, there were many beautiful moments of sharing vulnerabilities, pushing boundaries, and breaking fear of years of being under the most merciless fear machine of ISIL. The first thing I noticed in the room was the many red and white balloons, big red hearts drawn on papers, and many artificial red roses decorating the café. It was one day after Valentine’s day. Looking out the window, I noticed that the row of the houses and buildings facing the café were completely covered with bullet holes. It was clear that a fierce fight had taken place there. Down below the same street, the shops were all open – lively grocery stores full of colorful vegetables and fruit, a pharmacy, a bakery, and many other shops catering to different daily services for locals. The neighborhood right below the café seemed full of love and life, as if challenging all the hate, pain, and fear the city had witnessed in the recent past.

As I caught myself distracted looking out the window, I returned my attention to the participants. I heard the facilitator asking, “does anyone have a pleasant, a painful, or a sad story that means a lot to them? A story that has shaped your identity in significant ways. Please share with us. We care to hear. Don’t be shy.” A female participant, Maha, dressed nicely with a light green fur hat and a hand-knitted white scarf around her neck raised her hand and said: “When Daesh invaded Mosul, my family and I were on the right side of the city. At that time, I was madly in love with a man and many people from family to friends and even neighbors knew about it. As soon as Daesh invaded, I lost all contact with him. I never heard from him again. I don’t even know what had happened to him. He vanished.” As Maha was speaking, I could clearly see how interested, engaged, and amazed everyone in the room was. There was something very empowering about a young woman in Mosul sitting there one day after Valentine’s day speaking about love, separation, and ISIL. Maha continued, “as the man I loved vanished, I became the biggest topic of gossip in my neighborhood. You know how women’s reputation suffers in love stories that don’t end in marriage. I felt very depressed at first, but then I gathered my courage and decided that I will not allow this to push me down. My family and best friends were a huge support. They all helped me go through this hardship, ignore people’s gossip, and be a new and strong woman. And here I am today! I am an activist.” As Maha finished her last sentence, everyone clapped. I saw tears in the eyes of some of the attendees. The story deeply touched everyone in the room.

While I kept hearing thoughts and ideas from participants, the words “right side” continued to be referred to over and over. By the time I was leaving Mosul with Mohammed, the words “right side” were sounding like a siren in my head. I was thinking about how these two words capture the journey of Mosul. I imagined Mosul like a body with a left and a right side, and in which both sides must support each other to help the city rise from its ashes. I felt a joy in the pride I sensed in people’s tone when talking about how the left side is giving them hope and light because it is safer and full of life. It is also slowly but surely putting life on the right side, too. Between the right and the left side, I was reminded of words commonly attributed to Bertrand Russell: “War does not determine who is right. Only who is left.” In Mosul, I thought, the left is literally what is left in the city, and people are proud of it and hopeful about it. They want to make it a foundation from which to heal and start again. My thoughts were interrupted by Mohammed asking, “did you get a chance to have lunch today?” I responded negatively. He said, “I am so sorry. I should have made sure to ask you earlier. You must be starving now.” I said that it was fine, and I was just going to have a snack at home. “Well, the old Arab wisdom goes ‘eat your breakfast alone. Share your lunch with others. Give your dinner to your enemies.’ You know by that they mean eating dinner, which is usually later in the day, is not healthy for the body anyway,” Mohammed said with a laughter. I agreed. I thought to myself with a smile on my face that I had a plateful of Mosul stories to feed on for the days to come.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.

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