than two years ago, a Christian farmer in his 70s named Mosa Zachariah
fled his village near Mosul with, as he put it, only the pants he was
wearing. He left behind his house, “tons of wheat” and a BMW.
now that his town, an early target of the Iraqi security forces as they
advance on Mosul itself, has been cleared of the Islamic State forces,
it is not jubilation he feels, but fear of what awaits him if he tries
to return. He wistfully talked about his city’s diversity as something
completely unattainable now. “In that time, the Muslims and Christians
were like brothers,” he said.
Juma, a Shiite who used to live in the Mosul area, said he would not be
going back, either. He relocated to Najaf, in southern Iraq,
where he has a food stall and has decorated his home with old photos
and antiques from his hometown. Yazidis and Kurds and Shabaks, other
minorities that were once vital pieces of Mosul’s human tapestry, have
moved on, too. And many Sunni Arabs, who make up most of Mosul’s
population, say they will never go home again, even if that is where
their parents and grandparents are buried.
the Islamic State’s occupation began more than two years ago, Mosul was
Iraq’s most diverse city. Its rich culture, stretching back to the
ancient Assyrians, and reputation for tolerance made it a vital symbol
of an Iraq that could at least aspire to being a unified and whole
as Mosul’s exiled civilians watch the battle for their city unfold, the
only thing they seem to have in common is the belief that they once
shared a special history that can never be reclaimed.
of that belief, but not all, was torn apart after the American-led
invasion of Iraq in 2003, when many Christians felt threatened and fled
as Arabs and Kurds fought over old animosities. Mosul, home for many
former Baathist army officers suddenly tossed from power after the
invasion, became a center of the Sunni insurgency and a stronghold of Al
Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State.
2003, the Mosul community was living in peaceful coexistence, but after
that, things changed,” said Jafar Khaleel, 46, who left Mosul in 2014
after the Islamic State onslaught. “The Sunnis don’t trust the Shiites.
The Shabak cannot live with the Christian. This is what the American
occupation left behind.”
then, there was a social compact for Iraq’s minorities that at least
promised security in exchange for tolerating the tyranny and lack of
personal freedoms under Saddam Hussein’s government, led by an elite
class of Iraq’s minority Sunni population. Today, there is widespread
nostalgia for that time, though it is not shared by most of Iraq’s
Shiite majority, now in power.
generations, life was normal there,” said Sabah Salim Dawood, 62, a
Christian from Mosul. “In the factories, on the farms, in the offices,
nobody asked, ‘What are you?’ ”
Now there is a sense of unraveling that feels permanent.
man cannot describe in words what he misses,” said Omar Ahmed, 29, who
used to work in Mosul’s Health Ministry and is now exiled in the
northern Kurdish region.
through a ransacked church recently in Bartella, a mostly Christian
town at the edge of Mosul, reveals an elegy to what has been lost.
walls have been burned; others are streaked with Islamic State
graffiti. A whiteboard on a wall in an anteroom lists a daily schedule
for Islamic State recruits — fitness routines, weapons instructions and Shariah law
lessons. Strewn on the floor are dusty reminders of those who once
prayed there: Christian storybooks, copies of a “quarterly social &
cultural journal” published by the Chaldean Church, a Santa Claus
figurine, photographs of schoolgirls and a pink plastic rose.
old Iraqi tourist guide from the 1980s celebrated Mosul as a city whose
rich history as a place of great Arab conquests important to the
region’s pre-Islamic past that made it “a city of great importance.”
nickname as the “the city of two springs” — because autumn and spring
weather are so similar — was a testament to the city’s livability.
“Since 1969, a Spring Festival has been held every year in Mosul,” the
tourist guide noted. “Flower processions and folk dancing by thousands
of people from every walk of life bring much gaiety to the place.”
as they are known, have their own dialect, and jokes, many based on
their reputation for being stingy, which goes back to a famine in 1917,
when they suffered as the Ottoman Empire took food from the city to feed
its starving army. The rest of Iraq is known for its generosity, but a
common joke goes that the only time a Moslawi will invite someone in for
lunch is during Ramadan, when everyone is fasting.
Even so, the city is also known for its food, especially Mosul’s kibbe,
flat bulgur wheat discs stuffed with ground meat that are famous all
over Iraq. There is the abundance of cultural heritage, the remnants of
empires: ancient churches, monasteries, tombs, shrines and an
antiquities museum that is important not just to Mosul but the broader
Middle East. Nearly all have been destroyed or defaced by the Islamic
the city back together socially is “going to take a very, very long
time,” said Rasha al-Aqeedi, a Sunni Arab from Mosul who now lives in
Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she is a research fellow at
the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center and writes about her home city.
“I think everyone is going to live on their own. The Yazidis are going
to live on their own. Christians are going to live on their own. The
Sunnis are going to live on their own.”
a child, she recalls, her classroom had seven Christians, seven or
eight Kurds, two or three Yazidis, one or two Shiites, and the rest
Sunni Arabs. There were four or five languages spoken, she said, plus
three religions and two sects of Islam.
“That diversity you didn’t find anywhere else,” she said. Walking to school, she would pass by a winged bull statue from Assyrian times, at the old city walls, that has been demolished by the Islamic State.
“I really regret now that I took them for granted,” she said.
Perhaps most painful is seeing former friends turn into enemies.
Sayed, 26, is Shiite, so for him there was only this choice when the
Islamic State took over Mosul: leave or be killed. Like many Shiites
from the city, he eventually moved to Najaf, a holy city for his sect,
where he now bakes bread and sells it on the street.
Islamic State destroyed my childhood and my memories,” he said. “They
turned some of my friends into murdering terrorists, some of the friends
that I studied with in primary school and high school, and I have the
most beautiful memories with them. But they have joined the terrorists,
and for them, I have become an infidel.”
task of trying to stitch Iraq back together is immensely complicated.
But for Iraqis who have been displaced, it all boils down to a single,
simple human emotion.
major problem in Iraq is dealing with fear,” said Falah Mustafa, the
Kurdish region’s foreign minister, at a recent panel discussion in
Erbil, about Mosul’s future. “It’s immensely painful to be betrayed by