Downtown Old City of Mosul, close to the basement flat where ISIS fighters were buried. (Edward Pentin photo)
Out of the tens of thousands of Christian families who lived in Mosul pre-2014, only 10 have so far returned, and it’s unlikely many more will go back.
MOSUL, Iraq — The bombed-out houses, wrecked cars and general devastation steadily increased as we neared the Old City in West Mosul where the most fierce fighting to liberate the city took place.
Few have been back there since the Iraqi army retook the ancient city in July 2017 after nine months of gun battles and aerial bombardments.
But on May 26, thanks to the generosity of a Syriac Catholic Iraqi army general improbably dressed in a suit and shades, we were driven throughout the Old City — once the jewel of Northern Iraq but now effectively flattened.
A few soldiers, construction workers, and some resilient traders who had re-opened their shops were hard at work among the debris, but otherwise the quarter was a deserted scene of destruction — a testimony to the death and countless atrocities that had taken place there over three years.
Hardly a single building was left unscathed.
Our first stop was to the Chaldean Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, practically gutted by ISIS and the military campaign to liberate the city. The church was home to Cardinal-designate Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako from 1974 to 2002. Statues had been destroyed, pews removed, and six dead bodies of ISIS fighters were discovered there just a few weeks before our visit.
We saw three churches, along with the residences of three bishops — Syriac Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian — all located up a small hill, in the same cul-de-sac. All of them almost entirely destroyed, save for a few ornate doorways that gave away their identity. Leading to them on the roadside were three upturned cars, riddled with bullets. We were told a bombed flat on the street corner was the home of a small family, their bodies recovered only a few weeks ago.
The Dominican church of the Our Lady of the Hour, built in 1870, kept its bell tower, but inside was only rubble and graffiti. A noose hung from the ceiling of a corridor where ISIS had hanged Christians. A girl’s tiny shoe, covered in dust, lay among the debris. One was only left to imagine the horror and suffering inflicted in such a sacred space.
We walked through the streets to a basement flat where blood marked the floor — a hideout for a group of ISIS fighters. Facial hair could also be seen on the ground where they’d shaved their beards to avoid capture. Their bodies had been removed only a month ago, and many corpses continue to be found in this scene from hell. According to reports, Iraqi Civil Defence has removed 1,282 bodies, both ISIS and civilians, from Mosul in just the past 10 days.
Farther into the Old City, we passed a disturbing-looking, free standing tall building, heavily hit by gunfire and mortars. “That’s where they threw homosexuals off the roof,” we were told.
After entering a wide area, we came across what remains of the Great Mosque of Mosul and its famous medieval leaning minaret. The mosque, much of it destroyed, was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made his infamous speech in July 2014, declaring himself “caliph” of all Muslims.
General Fares Zake, who guided us through the city, was insistent that all ISIS fighters were “finished” and they had “killed all the leaders.” Now, he said, “Mosul is at peace.” He also assured us the city was crime-free and “very safe,” so much so that he said he wasn’t even carrying a pistol.
He laughed when asked what he thought Britain would do if any of the ISIS fighters turned up there. “Oh, they’ll give them five-star treatment, meals for life,” he said, alluding to the soft and preferential treatment the British government has given to ISIS while denying Catholic religious and prelates visas. Many Iraqis we spoke to had the same reaction, aware of the policy which they considered to be madness.
After exiting the Old City, we crossed the Tigris and drove through West Mosul, a part of the city much less damaged and resembling the bustle of normal life. Out of the tens of thousands of Christian families who lived in Mosul pre-2014, only 10 have so far returned, and it’s unlikely many more will go back. Too many scars remain, including the ruins of the ancient tomb of Jonah which we passed as we left. ISIS blew it up in 2014, leaving just an empty shell of colonnades.
At the moment, bishops and priests don’t want to return to the predominantly Sunni Muslim city, and unless they do, the lay faithful won’t either.
After the trauma of the past three years, the lack of law and order, and the uncertainty of a lasting peace in the future, who can blame them?
See my article on the current situation facing the Christians of Northern Iraq here.