The nine-month-long battle to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State, or ISIL, is officially over, but the work to rebuild Mosul and the lives of its people is only now beginning. As a humanitarian aid worker on the ground in Mosul every day, my fear is that the international community will forget the immense human toll that the Islamic State and the conflict has had on Iraqi families. An even greater concern is that we will neglect our moral responsibility as human beings to help the people of Mosul start again.
The devastation of Mosul is nearly total. The United Nations estimates that 5,500 buildings in the Old City alone are in need of repair. Aerial photographs of west Mosul are almost post-apocalyptic—think 1945 Dresden or Hiroshima. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled. Streets are deserted. There is no electricity or running water. It is impossible to imagine how anyone could—or would—return to their former homes in west Mosul without major investments in shelter and infrastructure.
Security also remains an issue. Sporadic fighting continues in isolated pockets of the city, while residents fear sniper-fire and attacks could flare up around them again at any time. We hear daily from families who tell us they need the basics—food, water, shelter—but what they want most is security. So far, they don’t feel comfortable returning home.
For now, that means the future of the more than 682,000 Iraqis currently displaced from their homes in the city is uncertain. Roughly half now live with family and friends. The rest remain in overcrowded displacement camps outside Mosul.
We work in Jeda’a and Hammam al Alil displacement camps, which have been flooded with displaced families from west Mosul, providing primary health care, mental health and psychosocial support, gender-based violence prevention and response, and community health education. This work is needed just as much now as it was when the fighting raged because these services must be available to families as they navigate what comes next.
The bleak reality of going back to west Mosul was summarized by 48-year-old Talal, who spoke for his family of seven: “The security situation there is far from being stable, destroyed infrastructure facilities, and no electricity or water, nothing to support our life.”
Humanitarians also need access to west Mosul.
Earlier this year, after the eastern half of the city was reclaimed by Iraqi Security Forces, International Medical Corps worked with eight primary health clinics to get once again operational and caring for families. We restocked their pharmacies, made infrastructure repairs (some of which included fixing damage left by mortars), provided doctors and nurses, and helped pay existing staff. We also trained doctors and nurses to identify, handle, and refer mental health issues and equipped 120 civilian volunteers in first aid. These are all tasks we are ready to do again, but with the security situation in west Mosul still tenuous, it remains uncertain when we will be able to deploy teams to begin this life-saving work.
What is certain, however, is that we cannot afford to scale back now. To do so would be to turn our backs on families who have experienced incomprehensible suffering during three years of brutal ISIL rule, followed by months of grinding urban war, fought neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block in a battle that destroyed their homes and claimed so many of their loved ones forever.
The battle for Mosul may have ended, but an unimaginably deep ocean of human suffering remains in its wake. It must be addressed.