Just a few short months ago, the students and teachers at what had been one of Iraq’s largest universities, who were lucky enough to be able to, were sharing a strange picture: It showed a donkey roaming the deserted campus that was once a serious centre of learning.
The picture was a metaphor: For months, the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, had been using the university buildings for their own ends. The group, which had controlled the city since the middle of 2014, were moving from hall to classroom stealthily during fighting for the city and had used other buildings for administration previously. They had started grazing donkeys and other livestock in the university grounds and the picture of the strolling donkey was a symbol of how the extremists had shut down the university and were trying to reinvent local culture and religion according to their own fantastical rules.
It makes me very happy when I see representatives of the minorities of Ninawa – such as the Yazidis or the Christians – returning to the university. It even seems as though there are more of them now than before.
Things have changed a lot since then. Just three months after the fighting ended on the eastern side of Mosul, life started to return to Mosul university, which boasts facilities such as teaching hospitals, science centres, museums and over 20 different schools of learning. By June, the institution’s gates were wide open for students again.
Although the signs of war are still visible on both the buildings and the faces of the students, that has not stopped an estimated 35,000 students from starting class. The university formerly taught around 40,000 students.
One student, Omar Habib, brings his wife to university every morning. The couple have to work hard to get there: They must wait in the queues to cross one of the temporary floating bridges set on the Tigris river, which runs through the city, to cross over to the east. All five of the bridges in Mosul were destroyed during fighting.
Both Habib and his wife attend classes in the arts department. “We were just fellow students in our first year but we fell in love and we had already decided to get married after we graduated,” Habib explains. “But the war didn’t allow us to complete our studies on time so we decided to get married anyway. Now we’re coming back here as husband and wife,” he says, laughing.
The fight against the IS group has changed the composition of the classes that Habib and his wife are attending. “There are a lot of changes,” Habib explains. A lot of students are coming to Mosul from other provinces again and students from different sects and religious groups around the province of Ninawa are also making their way back to lectures. “Sitting next to me are Christians, Yazidis and Shiites from other provinces,” he says.
One of the Shiite Muslims who has come to this Sunni-majority province is Murtada al-Zubaidi from Diyala, about 450 kilometres away. He is studying engineering here and admits he was slightly nervous when he first heard that this was to be his college town.
“Just the idea of coming to Mosul was unthinkable before because the IS group would kill us, just for being Shiite – the same way they would kill Yazidis and Christians,” al-Zubaidi notes. “There seemed to be no life in this city. It was pronounced dead.”
Al-Zubaidi said he is only here because of the way the authorities delegate university classes. “In the beginning I was really afraid to come,” the young man continues. “But my father contacted some friends and asked them about the situation and they said it was fine, so now I have been here for two months. All my fears are gone and things are good,” he says, as he heads into his next class. “Yes, they are good.”
Around 65 percent of the university was destroyed, says Yunus Karim, director of communications for Mosul university. Buildings on the sprawling campus were destroyed both through bombing by the allied coalition fighting the IS group and by the IS group, who had a scorched earth policy as they withdrew.
One of the worst affected buildings was the central library, which was almost completely burned. Close to the central library, a Yazidi woman, Feryal Sido, is distributing sweets to her friends and fellow students because today is a Yazidi religious occasion. She is sitting with Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim students and they appear to be enjoying one another’s company.
But there is also a dark undertone to all of this: There is no doubt that if Sido had been at home when the IS group attacked Yazidi towns in the middle of 2014, she too might have been taken captive and sold into slavery along with thousands of others from her ethno-religious group.
The people in Mosul still lack confidence in Iraq’s social system and there’s no doubt that, despite the university scene, deep down many people here wonder if coexistence is possible in the long term in Iraq.
Some of the teaching staff certainly believe it is. They see Mosul university as an example of that possibility.
“The diversity here makes the university a fertile environment for the cultivation of peaceful coexistence,” Mahmoud Azzo, a professor of political science at the University of Mosul, told NIQASH. “Universities should never reflect one specific social identity or political ideology. It makes me very happy when I see representatives of the minorities of Ninawa – such as the Yazidis or the Christians – returning to the university. It even seems as though there are more of them now than before.”
Azzo has been putting his philosophy into action. He was one of the university lecturers who took part in a convoy of Mosul men who travelled to Baghdad and Najaf after the IS group was pushed out of his city. The convoy was meant to acknowledge the sacrifices of those who had fought the IS group and to show that not all of the people who lived in the IS-held city were supporters of the extremists.
Azzo has also written a series of articles and given lectures on how to encourage peaceful coexistence in Mosul. There is an increasing amount of these kinds of activities, Azzo adds. “It’s the natural consequence of a post-war period.”
There have been a number of other events, that have included conferences, art exhibitions and seminars and almost all of them have been held in, or on, ruins. While this reporter was visiting the university, another convoy of Mosul locals arrived in the city of Samarra in southern Iraq where the members of the convoy – around 50 students and professors – will take part in celebrations of the victory of the Iraqi army over the IS group and the liberation of Mosul.