Empowered communities lead post-IS reconstruction in Mosul

The scent of grilled fish and charcoal mingles with the thick, humid air, punctuated by the shouts of men hawking their wares in the bustling Mosul fish market.

Men with practised hands expertly prepare shimmering fish, while customers, a mix of men and women, weave through the stalls.

Some inquire about prices; others place orders, selecting whole-cooked fish or diced portions destined for home kitchens.

This local market embodies the duality of Mosul’s everyday life on the west side of the Tigris River, once occupied by the Islamic State group (IS).

People go about their business, sharing snippets of conversation and moments of connection with neighbours and fellow citizens, weaving threads of normalcy into the fabric of their days amid buildings still marked by war’s brutality — walls riddled with bullet holes and gaping craters from explosions.

A man prepares Masgouf (Iraq’s traditional grilled fish) at Mosul’s local fish market 
[Javier Jennings Mozo]

A decade ago this June, IS ruthlessly seized control of Mosul, declaring it the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Al-Nouri, its most significant mosque.

For three brutal years, IS militants enforced strict Islamist rule over the city until Iraqi security forces eventually pushed them back into their final stronghold: Mosul’s historic Old City, a labyrinth of narrow streets and steep hills.

There, a US-led coalition launched a fierce campaign to dislodge IS, indiscriminately flattening down the area — in a battle that killed between 9,000 to 11,000 civilians and left 300,000 displaced.

“If you look at the end of the market, you can see that every single building is destroyed,” says Ahmed, a 28-year-old fish seller, pointing at a lifeless area where streets are covered in rubble and the few structures that remain standing are marked with a “safe” sign that indicates they have been cleared of explosives.

Not far away from the market, the dome of Al-Nouri mosque floats on metal beams while its walls are being rebuilt.

“IS destroyed this mosque because it’s a landmark for the city of Mosul,” says Omar Taqa, the site coordinator working for UNESCO in the Al-Nouri complex.

The mosque, as well as the Al-Hadba’ minaret, was built between 1172 and 1173 by the Seljuk Empire, making it one of the oldest and most important buildings in the city.

“They took this site as a base because it’s in the heart of the Old City, and when the liberation army was less than 100 metres away, they blew up the mosque and the minaret because if the liberation army had taken this site without any damage, it would have been considered a victory for us,” Omar Taqa adds. 

Local workers and UNESCO staff at the Al-Nouri Mosque complex
[Alejandro Matrán]

In 2021, UNESCO launched the Reviving the Spirit of Mosul initiative. The first wave of reconstruction efforts came from the United Arab Emirates, who pledged their support to rebuild the iconic Al-Nouri Mosque and the leaning Al-Hadba’ Minaret.

Following this, the Al-Saa’a and Al-Tahera Churches were also earmarked for restoration before the European Union joined the initiative, providing funding to rebuild over 124 traditional houses.

This project prioritises community engagement by offering training programmes and creating over a thousand jobs at each restoration site. Cultural activities are also organised, and educational initiatives have been launched to support the city’s intellectual life.

However, many of the activities that have been taking place since the rubble clearance operations in 2018 began with community initiatives.

One of them is the Mosul Heritage Museum, located in an old-style house overlooking the banks of the Tigris River.

“There was a deliberate effort to erase the identity of this city by detonating archaeological sites, so we, as young people interested in this field, initially tried personally to document some aspects of this heritage by sharing it on social media platforms and then through some activities on the ground to form the idea of Mosul Heritage,” says Ayoob Thanoon, founder of the project, who has gathered all kinds of artefacts that are now showcased at the museum.

Rubble and buildings in ruins in Mosul’s Old City
[Alejandro Matrán]

For Ayoob, connecting modernity and modern technology with ancient heritage is critical.

Before the museum was opened, Mosul Heritage started collaborating with the Qaf Lab company to develop a virtual museum where visitors could learn about the city through augmented reality, 3D models, videos, and holograms.

“This creates an environment to learn about these sites, retrieve memories for the elderly, preserve a model, and archive these sites or preserve heritage,” adds Ayoob.

Qaf Lab also empowers other community ideas that contribute to amending the social fabric of Mosul by nurturing community ties, such as Radio Al Ghad and the Watar Orchestra.

Radio Al-Ghad, now one of the main stations in the city, played a main role during its liberation.

It was launched in 2015, during the occupation, with “the aim of establishing a media outlet to communicate the voice of those trapped inside the city of Mosul and raise their voice to all the world,” according to its director, Mohammed Salih.

At that time, the radio was broadcasting from the Kurdish city of Erbil, and the team members were using nicknames to avoid retaliation against their relatives.

“During IS’s control and the liberation operations, we saved many lives by [secretly] reporting the locations of the militants and informing the security forces,” Mohammed Salih comments. 

The Watar Orchestra, formed by 50 members, both men and women of different origins — Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen, Sunni Muslims, and Christians — also provides training for people of all ages to learn music, which was completely banned under the militant group’s rule.

Back in the fish market, Ahmed sits in a small cafeteria where all the fishermen take their tea breaks and crack jokes between the smoke of cigarettes.

Abu Salem, an elder from the Old City who used to work as an engineer, sits among them and reflects on the current state of the country.

“Historically, this land was the mother of civilisation. The US invaded Iraq in 2003, therefore they were responsible for the security of this city, but nowadays you can still find human bones among the rubble,” Abu Salem says before leaving on time for the midday prayer while everyone else goes back to work.

Alejandro Matran is a journalist, actor, and musician. He is also the founder of @thenewmidd

Follow him on X: @AlejandroMatran

Javier Jennings Mozo is an audio-visual freelance journalist based in Cairo who specialises in social issues. He has previously covered the Balkans and Spain

Follow him on X: @javierjenningsm

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