Aftermath: Returning to the ruins of Mosul’ Old City

December 2018


Seventy-five-year-old Kasim Hussein took a long puff of his cigarette while he stood outside the ruins of his once beautiful home. “Every day we saw people dying,” he recalled of life under Islamic State control in the ancient quarter of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. “Around 100 people were executed every day. If you smoked cigarettes, they would cut your fingers. If your trousers were long, they put you in jail for one month.”

During the battle to liberate the city from ISIS, Kasim’s home was hit by an airstrike in the summer of 2017, forcing him and his family to flee to the liberated eastern side of the city. “I think the Americans missed their target,” he said, referring to the airstrike that hit his house. “The house next to mine was being used as an ISIS bomb factory.”

In the final weeks of the offensive, Iraqi forces advanced from all sides, closing in on militants in the city’s historic centre and the last remaining pocket of ISIS-held territory. The area’s narrow streets, however, restricted access to Humvees and other military vehicles, forcing Iraqi soldiers to fight in close quarters on foot and by air. As traumatized and malnourished civilians fled across the frontlines, US-led coalition airstrikes targeted ISIS militants hiding amongst civilians’ homes, leaving large areas of the Old City in ruins.

In July 2017, then Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS in the city of Mosul. With an end to the bloodshed, the city began the long and difficult process of healing and rebuilding the infrastructure and livelihoods that had been destroyed. Displaced families began returning to what remained of their once beautiful homes, determined to reconstruct their lives post-ISIS.

In the heart of the Old City, the iconic Al-Nuri Mosque lay in ruins, surrounded by battle-torn streets filled with rubble and debris, while the stench of rotting corpses permeated the air – a constant and haunting reminder of the thousands of dead bodies that lay beneath the rubble.

The war against ISIS was won, but the struggle to rebuild and recover from the trauma, loss, and devastation of the conflict continues.

Kasim Hussein stands outside the remains of his home in the Old City of Mosul, where he has lived all his life. Having fought in the Iran Iraq war, Kasim says he has never seen violence like he saw while living under Islamic State control. “They (ISIS) were executing people for any reason,” he said.

The view from inside Kasim’s destroyed home, which was hit by an airstrike during the final phase of the battle to oust Islamic State from Mosul’s historic centre.

With smoking forbidden under ISIS, Kasim made his own cigarettes from tea and vine leaves. He now smokes around 100 cigarettes per day. He also enjoys drinking alcohol. “I was drinking when ISIS was here,” he said, describing how he secretly made whisky and arak from dates.

The ruins of Mosul’s Old City, which was heavily bombed in the battle to retake the city from Islamic State control.

Kasim stands outside his house.

Kasim lights a cigarette outside his home.

Kasim sits with friends outside an abandoned building in the Old City of Mosul. Since the end of the battle against ISIS, Kasim has been tasked with keeping watch over destroyed stores and warehouses that belong to his neighbours. He now spends his days sitting here, watching over the buildings under his protection.

Kasim keeps hold of the keys to the stores and warehouses under his protection.

Kassim stands inside what remains of his home.

Dead bodies are gathered outside the ruins of a home in Al-Midan neighbourhood of western Mosul.

Mosul resident Sawsan and her daughter walk towards their home in the old quarter of Mosul. In February 2018, Sawsan and her family returned to their home after being temporarily displaced during the final phase of the battle against ISIS. With improvised explosive devices and dead bodies still buried beneath the rubble that surrounded their home, the decision to return was a risky one, fraught with difficulties and memories of a harrowing and tragic time.

Nuhad Hamdoon (left), her daughter Sawsan, and Sawsan’s husband Taha Younis stand with their children in the basement of the family’s home in the Old City of Mosul. During the final phase of the battle for Mosul, eleven members of the family spent seven months living in the basement taking cover from the airstrikes that left most of their neighbourhood in ruins.

Three-days-old Amina is held by her grandmother Sawsan in their home in the old quarter of Mosul.

Mosul resident Abdulkhaliq stands amongst the ruins of his home inside the Old City of Mosul. His house was hit by an airstrike in April 2017.

The ruins of Mosul’s Old City and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, which was blown up by ISIS militants.

Father of five Safwan stands inside his home in the Old City of Mosul, which was damaged during the battle for liberation. “Living here was hell,” he explained, referring to the years he and his family lived in Mosul under ISIS occupation. “They (ISIS) killed everyone. They destroyed everything.”

He and his family fled their home in July 2017 during the final phase of the battle to retake the city’s historic centre. “ISIS was very close to us so we left the house and walked to Al Nuri mosque because the Iraqi Army was there,” he said. “We thought we were going to die anyway if we stay or leave, so we decided to leave.”

Safwan returned to his home in February 2018 to begin making repairs so he can bring his family back.

Safwan breaks down while recalling life under ISIS in Mosul.

A green sign is seen painted on the walls of houses, meaning ‘done’ in Arabic. During ISIS occupation, militants would raid homes in search of televisions and any communication devices, confiscating them in order to prevent people from being connected to the outside world. After they had completed the raid, militants would paint the sign on the outside wall of each home.

A father and son walk past damaged buildings in the Old City of Mosul.

Father of six Radwan, 42, reopened his tea shop near the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul’s historic centre in 2018.

During ISIS occupation, Radwan allowed people to smoke cigarettes in a hidden part of his shop. When ISIS militants found out, he was beaten and threatened with execution, and was subsequently forced to close his shop.

Radwan’s son Mohammed helps his father at his tea shop in the old city of Mosul. Mohammed, 12, left school for three years during ISIS occupation of the city. He cannot read or write and and his father can’t afford to pay for the transportation to take him to school.

In the future he hopes to become a police officer because he’s afraid ISIS will come back. He says he wants to fight against them and take revenge for his cousins who were killed by ISIS militants. Two of his cousins were beheaded and one was thrown from a high building.

Forty-three-year-old Majdi Hameed locks the door of his home in the Old City of Mosul. Majdi returned to his damaged home in September 2018. He is one of the first Christians to return to the city’s historic centre. “I love Mosul so much,” he says, “I don’t want to go to Europe or anywhere else, I just want to stay in Mosul. That’s why I returned back.”

A cross is painted on a bullet-pocked wall inside Majdi’s damaged home in the Old City of Mosul.

Majdi stands in an empty, burnt room inside his home in the Old City of Mosul. “This house used to be so beautiful,” he said. “Now I’m trying to work on it.”

Majdi sits on his bed inside his home in the heart of Mosul’s historic quarter.

Iraqi children play on a swing set up outside an abandoned building in the Old City of Mosul in June 2018 during the first Eid al-Fitr holiday since the city was liberated.

Children ride horses along the banks of the Tigris river in East Mosul during the first Eid al-Fitr since the city was liberated.

Young Iraqis ride horses and swim in the Tigris river in Mosul on the first day of Eid al-Fitr.

A food stand serving falafel and meat sandwiches resumed business amongst the ruins of the Old City of Mosul, which was devastated during the final phase of the battle for Mosul.

A woman buys cigarettes from a small shop in Mosul in March 2018, shortly after it reopened amongst the ruins of the Old City.

A man with crutches walks along a street in the Old City of Mosul.

A destroyed bridge connecting east and west Mosul.

Work underway to rebuild the once beautiful streets and homes of Mosul’s Al Midan neighborhood.