For five months, Mosul locals who used to do business in one of the city’s biggest commercial areas, the Bab Al Saray market, have not been allowed to enter their old workplaces.
“It was a military area where civilians were not allowed to go,” explains Radwan Abdel Hafez, a contractor who is on the edge of the destroyed marketplace, counting the number of trucks coming and going, all carting rubble away. “But eventually we were able to get permission to enter from the Iraqi security forces. And now we are starting our own reconstruction campaign called Do It Yourself,” he says, not hiding his disdain for the lack of government assistance in Mosul. Like many others here, Hafez has given up on the idea of the federal government coming to help with reconstruction anytime soon.
There’s a very unpleasant smell. It’s the smell of decomposing bodies, our guide explains.
For around three years, Mosul was the de-facto capital of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, who took control of the city in mid-2014. During fighting to push the group out of one of Iraq’s biggest cities, some areas were almost completely destroyed. The historic parts of the city, where narrow alleyways and houses built close together made fighting difficult, suffered some of the worst damage.
Around 3,000 tons of rubble have already been removed from this marketplace in the old city. “Every day, about 50 big trucks carry away what is left of buildings that were built hundreds of years ago,” Hafez says.
There used to be around 2,000 small businesses operating here in the historic part of the city and now some of the sellers, who used to sit in the marketplace calling out for customers, have become renovators. They work with shovels and hammers and try to salvage anything of use or saleable from out of the ruined buildings. Business owners claim what they can.
“In the past our goods were like spoiled children,” says one worker here, Ahmad Menem, who is pulling some torn rugs out from under collapsed walls. “We used to hang them on the walls and clean them before selling them!”
This is a voluntary effort, funded by local businesspeople, explains Muda al-Khabaz, who is one of the coordinators of the homegrown reconstruction efforts. Each shop owner pays a minimum of US$20. Those who can pay more toward the work.
“We heard them say that this market won’t ever be busy again, not even in a thousand years,” says al-Khabaz, who comes from a long line of vendors who have plied their trade in Bab Al Saray. “But now, after just seven weeks of work, it is clear to us that the heart of the city will beat again.”
Another of the participants in the reconstruction campaign, Saleh al-Obeidi, leads us out of the market and onto a wider street that separates commercial and residential areas in this neighbourhood. There’s a very unpleasant smell.
It’s the smell of decomposing bodies, al-Obeidi explains.
We cover our noses and mouths and we feel as though we are roaming a morgue. Clouds of dust rise out of one narrow, twisted alleyway. The sound of drills and machinery are inescapable down some of these alleys. On others there’s a strange stillness and that disgusting smell.
An old man standing in a doorway calls to us and asks us to come and take pictures. He opens the door of what was once his shop with trembling hands. “All my stock is completely burned,” says the man who asks us to call him Bazzaz. “I have been working here for 50 years and all of my life’s work is gone now. Forever.” He starts to cry.
From the burnt-out store we can see many people passing by, on their way to what was formerly the residential area in this part of the city. One person is digging up somebody who was buried in the house during the fighting. It is time to take them to the cemetery.
A couple who walk past, tell us they have just returned from the Al Mayadeen neighbourhood where their house once stood. It was completely destroyed and they are dragging three bags with them, full of the things they have salvaged: clothes, utensils, shoes.
Despite the fact that Mosul locals want to return to their homes in the areas of the city that saw a lot of fighting, to try and begin reconstruction, it remains very dangerous. The fleeing extremists left booby traps and unexploded ordinances.
Not a week passes without some random explosions, a police officer stationed in the neighbourhood tells us. “Two days ago two young men were killed as they entered their house,” he notes.
“It is a very heavy problem and the destruction is devastating,” Mosul's mayor, Abdul Sattar al-Habbo, told NIQASH. “There are an estimated 11,500 destroyed or damaged buildings in the old city.”
Late in November the United Nations estimated there were over 7,000 damaged or destroyed buildings in the city. But up until now the reconstruction efforts and aid plans coming from the central government have been few and far between, al-Habbo says. Two bridges are being repaired and one should be ready in about two months, the disconsolate mayor says. If the bridges are not rebuilt then commercial life will not return to the marketplace – the bridges connect the two halves of the city. Temporary floating bridges are not enough, locals say.
Many of the people who have returned to their ruined city wonder when the Iraqi government is ever going to do anything to help them rebuild their hometown. Some suspect that the federal authorities are waiting to attend a dedicated donor’s conference, scheduled to be held in Kuwait in February 2018.
Bazzaz, the old man with the burned store, cannot wait any longer. He says he will reopen the shop by himself. Like so many others here, he knows nobody is coming to help him.