Hope amid the ruins as displaced Iraqis return to West Mosul
While the battle for control of Iraq's second city has been declared over, the task of rebuilding the city the lives of its inhabitants is just beginning.
MOSUL, Iraq – Um Ahmed and 16 members of her family live crammed in their blast-damaged two-storey home in the Al-Resala neighbourhood of West Mosul. Despite the destruction, she says she feels lucky that their house is still standing when others nearby have been flattened.
Back in March, when the battle for control of Iraq’s second city raged around them, 35-year-old Um Ahmed and her family spent ten terrifying days huddled in their basement shelter with 40 other people. The dark, damp room had only one tiny window for ventilation, and was rank with the smell of closely packed bodies and fear, she recalls.
During a lull in the fighting, she fled with her husband Shehab, 42, and their children to a government-run displacement camp in Jadaa, some 50 kilometers south of the city. Hours later, a rocket struck their cherished home.
The hot and dusty camp environment was particularly hard on Shehab, who suffers from a heart condition and epilepsy. On July 10, the day after the Iraqi government declared the battle for the city over, the family returned to their home to assess the damage after four months in the camp.
“We returned to Mosul because it was difficult for my husband to stay in a tent with his poor health.”
“We returned to Mosul because it was difficult for my husband to stay in a tent with his poor health,” Um Ahmed explains. “We were also afraid of losing our house.”
On their return they were greeted with a scene of utter destruction, with the entire front of the house lying in ruins. But after clearing their way inside they found that, unlike many of their neighbours, their furniture and possessions were still there – the rubble having prevented looters from gaining entry. “Something bad turns into something good,” Shehab says with a wry smile.
While happy to be home, life remains tough for the family, with each day a struggle to provide the basics for survival. Electricity is costly and usually available for just eight hours a day, drinking water is delivered by truck and stored in tanks, while water for toilets and washing is collected from a well in a large barrel which they have to roll home. Um Ahmed and her sister make dresses at home to earn enough money to scrape by.
So far some 79,000 people have returned to the ruins of West Mosul, according to government figures, equivalent to around 10 per cent of all those who fled the area. By contrast, some 90 per cent of those who fled have since returned to the east of the city, which witnessed considerably less destruction.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been stepping up its aid efforts for Iraqi families in Mosul including those that have recently returned. The agency’s field assessments show that the returning population of Mosul needs assistance of every kind, but shelter needs remain the most pressing and dire, particularly in the west.
“Returning families also face challenges in accessing basic services and utilities – accessing water, electricity or fuel in parts of Mosul can be difficult and very expensive,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a media briefing in Geneva on Friday (August 11).
“Returning families also face challenges in accessing basic services and utilities."
Since the end of military operations in west Mosul, UNHCR and its partners have distributed shelter kits to more than 3,241 families in the east and west of the city.
Mahecic said the package includes sealing-off kits, which allow families like Um Ahmed’s to carry out basic repairs so they are able to live in partially damaged or unfinished buildings. The plan is to distribute kits to up to 36,000 families by the end of this year.
UNHCR has also been providing multipurpose cash assistance to some of the most vulnerable displaced Iraqi families. Families receive one-off cash assistance of US$400 (486,000 Iraqi Dinars) using a system of mobile money transfers. Some of the most vulnerable families will receive the same amount for up to three months, helping them to pay rent and manage basic necessities such as food and utilities.
While life is slowly returning to the ancient city, Um Ahmed and Shehab know it will take many years before things return to normal. “The future is in the hands of Allah, but we should never lose hope,” he says. The strain of the past several years is written in the lines on his face. “It’s not the years that have made us old, it’s the things we’ve seen.”