As East Mosul Comes Back To Life, West Mosul Remains In Ruins

Sep 18, 2017

Nine months after Iraqi forces drove ISIS from eastern Mosul, the east side's main street has come back to life. Wedding convoys decorated with ribbons and flowers honk their horns. Female drivers pull up in front of pastry shops and stalls piled high with fresh fruit.

Young men cruise by with car stereos tuned to upbeat music instead of ISIS radio and lectures on Islam. Signs advertise new pool halls and shisha lounges.

Those were all banned by ISIS during its three-year hold on the city, which the group considered its capital. In its final weeks, even food was unavailable.

ISIS put up much less of a fight here than it did across the Tigris River in west Mosul and damage in the east was relatively quickly repaired. Liberated just three months ago from ISIS, the devastated west side of the city is a much different story.

When Ahmed Jawdat's clothing shop on the west side was destroyed in the fighting, he opened a new one on the east side.

"Most of the things I sell were forbidden by ISIS — pants for women, party dresses — anything beautiful like that was banned," he says.

Sparkly sleeveless evening dresses, colorful tops and skinny jeans imported from Turkey hang from the racks.

Jawdat says business is good and says east Mosul now is safer than Baghdad.

ISIS put a foothold in Mosul months before it took over Iraq's third largest city three years ago. Before that al-Qaida terrorized residents through killings and kidnappings. With ISIS driven out, the city seems more relaxed than it has in years.

Jawdat says if the west side starts to recover, he will take a look at reopening there, too.

"All they have to do is reopen the roads," he says. "If the government can't help the people of Mosul, the people will start rebuilding themselves."

Ahmed Jawdat at his shop in east Mosul. Most of the things Jawdat sells were banned under ISIS. When his shop in west Mosul was destroyed he re-opened on the east side.
Jane Arraf / NPR

But for now, the difference between east and west Mosul is like day and night.

More than 2 miles from a newly opened temporary bridge across the river, traffic slows to a halt. U.S. airstrikes bombed Mosul's five bridges to prevent ISIS from escaping. They haven't been repaired and only two floating bridges connect the two sides, each with a single lane.

Taxis, cars and trucks wait for hours. Many are families from west Mosul going back to assess whether anything is left of their homes.

A bend in the road before the new bridge offers a dramatic view of the destruction on the west side of the city. That's where Sadiq Ramadan and a friend are standing against the stone balustrades and snapping selfies.

Before the fighting, Mosul had a postcard pretty skyline — minarets of old mosques juxtaposed with church spires and centuries-old stone buildings. All that is gone — the view now is shattered rooftops and the monochrome of grey concrete rubble and black scorched buildings.

Ramadan, 28, has come back to the city he was born in to visit friends. He's spent the last three days walking around the city.

"It was so hard for me to see this — it makes my heart hurt," he says.

Ramadan's family left six years ago when it started getting dangerous. His brother later disappeared and is believed to have been killed. He says he doesn't think he'll ever move back, but it's not because of the danger of the physical destruction.

"No one is left of our neighbors," he says. "They're all strangers. If I came back I would feel like a stranger among them."

Children cool off on a destroyed street in the old city in west Mosul. There's no electricity or water but residents are starting to dig wells and trying to repair their damaged homes.
Jane Arraf / NPR

Residents say when families who had lived in the cosmopolitan city for generations started leaving as ISIS moved in, people from rural villages and conservative city of Tel Afar bought up their houses.

While the east side had a large population of Kurds, Christians and other religious minorities, the west side was almost exclusively Arab.

ISIS found fertile ground at first in some of the poor neighborhoods in west Mosul. When the battle against ISIS began, U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces moved in from the east, eventually cornering isolating the group on the west side.

ISIS gunmen dug into the narrow streets and crowded alleys, laying explosives and using civilians as human shields. When west Mosul was declared liberated three months later in July, U.S. and Iraqi air strikes and mortars had leveled entire neighborhoods, killing several thousand civilians along with the ISIS fighters.

A lot of Iraqis believe that people in west Mosul particularly invited ISIS in.

"On the west side they are simple people and close-minded — most of them are from the villages around Mosul or from Tel Afar," says Federal Police General Hafedh al-Ta'ie, responsible for security in west Mosul. "The ISIS mentality was more prevalent on the west side than the east."

Al-Ta'ie's police are the holding force meant to secure west Mosul. But he doesn't know how long they will stay. For now the police respond to calls about unexploded bombs and check to see whether the residents who are trying to come back have permission to return.

An Iraqi army soldier asks for driver registration at a checkpoint between east and west Mosul. The city's bridges were damaged in U.S. airstrikes aimed at preventing ISIS from escaping. The only links between the two sides are two temporary floating bridges.
Jane Arraf / NPR

To prevent ISIS from returning to the city and to minimize looting, a local security committee has to approve any one moving back to west Mosul. In the old section of town where civil defense workers are still digging bodies out of the rubble, most of the neighborhoods are still off limits.

Unlike the east side, there is still no electricity in west Mosul and no running water. Hundreds of alleys are still blocked with chunks of concrete from collapsed houses.

On one street corner though on the edge of the old city recently, Basman al Rashadi and his neighbors were hanging out on the sidewalk.

The buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and just down the alley there's an unexploded bomb in a damaged house. Most of the dozen or so families who have moved back here have repaired a single room of their homes. Although it's too saline to drink, they've dug wells for water.

But they say it's still better than being displaced in east Mosul.

"Here we are all from different tribes but we live like one family," Rashadi says.

That wasn't the case on the east side. "They treated us like we came from the Caucasus," he says, citing the most foreign place people can think of here.

"If rent was $100 a month they would charge us $300," says his neighbor, Nazhan al-Jabouri. "They wouldn't even give us a bottle of water — they wouldn't give us water from their wells."

"With all due respect to the good people of east Mosul we suffered a lot from them there," Rashadi says.

The men hanging out on the street corner are former policeman — now unemployed. They say they had no choice but to pledge allegiance to ISIS when the group was in control of the city.

"They took two of my brothers," al-Jabouri says. His brothers were also policemen and are believed to have been killed.

Goats forage in front of the ruins of the Mosul's historic train station –- destroyed in the fighting against ISIS.
Jane Arraf / NPR

"We are the allegiance group," says another ex-policeman wryly.

They weren't arrested by Iraqi authorities because they weren't ISIS members. But as police who pledged to obey ISIS, they are now barred from re-joining Iraqi security forces.

Many Iraqis hold a lingering resentment against the people of Mosul, not just those who pledged allegiance to ISIS.

At his base in west Mosul, al-Ta'ie, the federal police commander says he believes ISIS has been so weakened it won't be able to come back again.

"But people in Mosul side with those who have strength," he says. "If ISIS became strong again they would side with them. If the devil were strong, they would side with the devil."

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We're going to hear now about the two sides of life in the Iraqi city of Mosul. It has been three months since ISIS was forced out of the city. The fighting reduced one side, the west, to ruins. The eastern side of Mosul, though, is thriving. NPR's Jane Arraf went to look at the city's deep physical and social divisions.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is east Mosul. The streets are full of cars again instead of military vehicles. There are women driving. There are wedding celebrations. And the cafes and the shops are open again, full of all kinds of things that ISIS banned in the three years it ruled the city.

AHMED JAWDAT: (Through interpreter) Most of the things I sell were forbidden by ISIS. Pants for women, party dresses - anything beautiful like this was banned.

ARRAF: That's Ahmed Jawdat. His shop across the river in west Mosul was destroyed, so he opened one here. It's full of sparkly dresses imported from Turkey. He says business is really good.

JAWDAT: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Jawdat says security in east Mosul now is better than it is in Baghdad. Most of the damage done in the fight against ISIS was quickly repaired here. In the busy shops, and restaurants and bustling streets, you can see a bit of why Mosul was once Iraq's commercial hub. But the other side of town, across the Tigris River, is a different story.

SADIQ RAMADAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Sadiq Ramadan and a friend are standing on the riverbank, snapping selfies. Their backdrop is western Mosul. The tops of the buildings have been blown off. The skyline is monochromatic - gray concrete rubble and black scorched walls. He left six years ago when it started getting dangerous, and he doesn't see himself moving back.

RAMADAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "It was so hard for me to see it like this. It makes my heart hurt," he says.

The west is the historic part of Mosul - centuries old. ISIS found fertile ground here at first in some of the poor neighborhoods. As the battle with Iraqi security forces raged, ISIS dug in here, hiding among civilians in the narrow streets. U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes and mortars leveled entire neighborhoods on the west side. A lot of Iraqis believe that people in west Mosul - particularly poorer and less educated than the east side of the city - invited ISIS in.

On the west side of the bridge, Iraqi army sergeant Mohammad Ahmed asks a driver for his car registration. He checks the trunk for weapons. He says thousands of vehicles a day pass through his checkpoint. Most of the traffic is Iraqis who've salvaged what they could from their damaged homes in the west. They're leaving again for the east side. There are hundreds and hundreds of trucks piled high with furniture, and mattresses and bulging plastic bags.

And a lot of these taxis driving by are so loaded with families that one of them that just went past had two young men sitting in the trunk. It's really just a few hundred feet, but this bridge is the link between people's old lives and their new ones.

There are a lot of neighborhoods here so damaged, the government isn't even letting people come back to them. But on the outskirts of the most heavily damaged section of Mosul, the old city, we see one street coming back to life. Basman al Rashadi and his neighbors are hanging out on the corner. There's no electricity in their houses. There's no water supply either, so they've dug wells.

BASMAN AL RASHADI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: (Laughter).

RASHADI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "You won't find the name of this neighborhood on any map," Rashadi tells me. He says it's called the floating neighborhood because during the winter, the streets are filled with mud and dirty water. Buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. And just down the alley, there is an unexploded bomb in a damaged house. But they say it's still better than being displaced in east Mosul. Here, they say, people are poor, but they help each other out. That wasn't the case when they were displaced on the east side.

RASHADI: (Through interpreter) It's like we were coming from another country. They wouldn't even give us a bottle of water. They wouldn't give us water from their wells.

ARRAF: People in Mosul say there's always been a divide between the west and east side of the city. ISIS and the battle against it deepen those divisions. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.