“Baghdad ha perduto la sua bellezza e non ne è rimasto che il nome.
Rispetto a ciò che essa era un tempo, prima che gli eventi la colpissero e gli occhi delle calamità si rivolgessero a lei, essa non è più che una traccia annullata, o una sembianza di emergente fantasma”
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 the Annunciation,
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
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
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
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
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