Schools are reopening in Mosul, after two years of jihadist ruleJan 31st 2017
Hidden in the doorways of houses and buried in nearby fields, the villagers only learned of their presence the hard way. “When the IS first came this way, we fled because we knew how they were beheading people,” says Ali Jassem, 80, standing among houses flattened by air strikes and pockmarked with machine gunfire. “Then we came back, and four people were killed while going inside their homes.”
Tullaban, which used to be on IS’s front line, is now being cleared of landmines and booby traps by the Mines Advisory Group, a British charity dedicated to making post-conflict zones safe again. But for all that it still resembles a battlefield, both the hinterland of Mosul and eastern parts of the city itself are seeing life to return to normal in areas freed from IS. It is happening faster than most dared hope.
On January 15th, 30 schools reopened in the east of the city, allowing 16,000 children to start classes again. Some of them have had no education at all since IS took over Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, in June 2014. Others have been in IS-run madrassas where, besides studying the Koran, boys trained with weapons and girls did little more than cook and clean.
“The reopening of the schools has been by public demand,” said Peter Hawkins, the senior official in Iraq for UNICEF, the UN children’s fund. “For children it’s a chance to have some structure back to their lives. For teachers, it’s a chance to get back to work and earn salaries.”
As well as children in school uniform heading to class amid piles of rubble, Mr Hawkins, who has toured eastern Mosul reports seeing shops, and restaurants open again, and even a football match. At least 22,000 people have returned to their homes, most in buses from the vast UN-run camps for displaced people that stretch across the surrounding hills.
The traffic is not all one way. When The Economist visited eastern Mosul’s hinterland last week, new arrivals were continuing, including a bedraggled group of 30 men who had done a four-day trek from IS-held territory. Overall, though, the exodus has never reached quite the apocalyptic levels predicted. Before the offensive, which began its main phase in October, it was feared that up to 250,000 of east Mosul’s 400,000 people would flee. The figure is nearer 180,000.
The situation contrasts with last year’s operations to flush IS from Fallujah and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, which suffered much greater damage, and where many civilians still languished in camps six months after it was taken. In Mosul, Mr Hawkins says, the Iraqi army has used gentler tactics, and encouraged civilians to stay in their homes rather than flee. That so many houses remained occupied also made it harder for IS to booby trap them—unlike the case in villages like Tullaban, which was emptied of civilians.
Nobody, though, thinks the end is in sight. For while eastern Mosul is now mostly retaken, western Mosul, with around 750,000 civilians, remains largely in IS hands. For those returning to their homes, many difficult questions remain. Why did my neighbour stay in Mosul while I fled? Was he an IS sympathiser, and if so, should I let my children play with his? Mr Hawkins is promising counselling and education to minimise the inevitable sense of mistrust, hoping to ensure that children exposed to IS influence are not ostracised.
Yet if Falluja and Ramadi are anything to go by, healing the wounds will be a job not just for aid agencies and politicians, but for more traditional actors like Iraq’s tribes; in Ramadi and Falluja tribal councils are still debating exactly what happened. Should similar gatherings get under way around Mosul, there will be just as much to talk about.