November 20, 2018

The joy and sadness of returning to Mosul

41I’ve dreamed of going back to Mosul for so long.
The city where I was born and grew up has always occupied a special place in my heart and it’s full of happy memories.
My Mosul was a city of green and shady streets, with beautiful, old houses overlooking the River Tigris.
It was a city of books with a famous university where my father taught and I studied.
It was a place where Iraqis came for a break, to breathe its cool, fresh air and visit its world-renowned archaeological sites.
I hadn’t been home for more than a decade, and knew that after two brutal years of occupation by so-called Islamic State (IS), Mosul had suffered much damage.
But it was still a shock to see it for real.
Heartbreaking homecoming
As we drove through the streets where I played as a child, I found myself fighting back the tears.
Familiar places had become almost unrecognisable.
Everywhere you looked there were bullet-scarred walls and bombed-out buildings.
The roads were littered with twisted metal and burned out cars.
It was a heartbreaking homecoming.
Basheer and Kareem with two other student friends in 1990s Mosul
The main road into Mosul was full of trucks bringing in supplies, and ambulances, sirens wailing, ferrying out the sick and injured.
Eastern Mosul, where I used to live, was freed from IS control in January but a fierce battle continues over the western side of the city.
IS militants in the west are sending a daily barrage of mortars and armed drones to disrupt life in the east, and there are frequent suicide bombings.
The peace in eastern Mosul is so fragile that we had to travel with an Iraqi army escort.
My first stop was the home of my oldest friend, Kareem.
We grew up together and had always kept in touch until IS occupation made it too dangerous.
We drew up outside Kareem’s house and suddenly there he was.
We hugged each other and cried – so happy to see each other, but so sad at everything that had been lost since we last met.

Over glasses of tea, Kareem told me what it had been like to live under IS.
Like many in the city, he had at first welcomed the militants. It was shocking, but unsurprising to hear.
In the chaos and violence of the post-Saddam era, Mosul was rife with corruption and sectarian tension.
The largely Sunni local population hated the Shia-dominated central government and army who they blamed for their troubles.
“We thought IS were revolutionaries here to help people and restore social justice and fairness,” Kareem said.
But his support was short-lived as the realities of everyday life in the “caliphate” became clear.
Hope was soon replaced by fear as arrests, public executions and floggings became a daily occurrence.
The militants took over houses in my and Kareem’s old neighbourhood. It was such an eerie feeling for me to know that.
Kareem’s beloved elder brother, who worked for the Iraqi electoral commission, was detained and executed.
“His last wish was to hug and kiss his five children before he died,” said Kareem. “But they didn’t let him.”
As a journalist, Kareem also feared arrest and he moved many times to keep out of sight.
But there were also occasional moments of humour.
We remembered another friend of ours, who kept pigeons – a popular pastime in Mosul until it was banned by IS.
The friend had apparently used the birds to fly illicit supplies of cigarettes – also banned – to another friend in a different part of the city.

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