Although the battle for Mosul is far from over, neighbourhoods retaken from ISIS are coming back to life

Jess Wanless
Jun 8, 2017 · 5 min read
Cars rust in a neighbourhood in the east of Mosul. ISIS confiscated vehicles to prevent people from escaping during the battle for the city. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

As we drive into Mosul for the first time, I am filled with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. For three years this city has dominated news headlines and although I have spent countless hours reading about Mosul and met dozens of people who fled the city I’m not exactly sure what to expect.

The city offers a mixed reception: crowded markets, busier checkpoints, damaged buildings. It’s not the first time I have visited an area retaken from ISIS but I still don’t think I will ever be able to look at a destroyed house without imagining the life of the family that once lived there. Outside one empty home we drive past, blankets are still hanging on the washing line, untouched for more the five months than have elapsed since the neighbourhood was retaken.

Three quarters of people that fled east Mosul have now returned home, but many families may never return, unable to afford to rebuild or unwilling to return to a place where they have experienced such horror.

A once average street in Iraq’s second largest city: Today buildings on both sides have been damaged or destroyed during the battle and a partial road block, most likely put in place by ISIS during the fight for the neighbourhood, still disrupts movement. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

Today the city is thronging with people. Thousands in east Mosul remained in their homes and many of the 300,000 people from west Mosul who have not gone to camps have found safety in the neighbourhoods of the east of the city. “Since people from the west starting coming here the price of rent has risen very quickly,” one man told me. If Mosul follows the patterns of other areas in Iraq it’s likely many of those that fled to the east of the city may choose to never return as they begin to build a new life for themselves.

I still don’t think I will ever be able to look at a destroyed house without imagining the life of the family that once lived there.

After a while it becomes easy to forget we are in Mosul, which despite seven months of fighting is still terrorized by ISIS forces entrenched in the densely populated old city.

Streets are busy with people going about their daily routine. Boys and girls walk in groups on the way home from school. Women buy groceries from shops, which after years of restrictions now sell everything you could want for (including the kitchen sink). Beauty salons, forbidden under ISIS, display images of unveiled women and grinning cartoons dance on building walls.

Signs of everyday life returning to the city — including a stall selling cigarettes, which were banned under ISIS. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

I am reminded where I am when we pass two images of Mickey Mouse with their faces spray painted out. ISIS banned any depiction of faces in the city. Taking a closer look around east Mosul there is a consistent low level of destruction — smashed windows here and there, a row of shops that has not yet reopened, playgrounds with the swings missing.

Suddenly the noise of an airstrike destroys the peace … but the children next to me continue to play…

As we turn a corner onto a bustling street suddenly the noise of an airstrike destroys the peace — a sound that chills me to the bone. But the children next to me continue to play, for them the sound goes unnoticed. This shouldn’t really be a surprise though with the battle for the remaining neighbourhoods only a few miles away, the threat of mortars means civilians in east Mosul are still at risk.

Smoke rises from the old city in west Mosul. People go about their lives in the east with the soundtrack of war playing in the background. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

One woman I speak to describes Mosul as ‘a city of horrors’ under ISIS. She describes how bodies were hung from lampposts for days, and beheadings were shown on large screens in the street. Everyone was forced to watch, even children. She says her daughter in west Mosul has already had to flee three times, and how she is terrified that her grandson may get hurt by an airstrike or get caught up in the fighting. She talks about how mothers had to watch their sons being executed and how they weren’t able to give them a funeral.

The damage to Mosul is much greater than destroyed houses or missing swing-sets. For the 1.5 million people that spent nearly three years living under ISIS, the psychological impact is almost immeasurable.

Each time I meet someone from Mosul they tell me an equally horrifying story. Everyone has lost somebody, everyone has seen terrible sights. Many children have missed three years of schooling. Only with significant support will people be able to process what has happened in this once great city and begin to truly rebuild their lives.

On the left — bullet holes left by the battle. On the right — bullet holes already filled in. One step at a time, people are reclaiming the city. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

As we head out of the city I hang onto a feeling of hope. Houses in every neighbourhood are being rebuilt. Bullet holes are being filled. Routes have been rebuilt around a destroyed bridge allowing traffic to flow. Newly planted trees line the road. I hope we are seeing signs of resilience, that coupled with government support and international aid, will make Mosul a great city once again.

The International Rescue Committee is currently responding to the ongoing crisis in and around Mosul, supporting both those forced to flee their homes and those that remained. In Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, IRC has provided some 15,000 people with vital cash relief and is also providing people in the town with legal aid so they are able to access the services they need. Elsewhere the IRC is providing people from Mosul with specialist services for women and children to help them to overcome the trauma they have experienced.


Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers of the refugee crisis.

Jess Wanless

Written by

Emergency communications for @theIRC in Iraq — responding to Mosul. All views my own.



Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers of the refugee crisis.

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