This past month Mosul, Iraq, woke up from a three-year-long nightmare.
In June 2014, in a campaign that shocked the world, ISIS took over Iraq’s second-largest city. It was a significant victory in the terror group’s short existence. More than 1 million people were forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives; the few who stayed endured torture, rape, starvation — and many were murdered.
This nightmare ended when Iraqi and coalition forces announced the city was liberated early July. After nearly a yearlong offensive, which at one point was described as the “deadliest urban combat since WW II,” Iraqi forces managed to rout ISIS out of the city. Soldiers and civilians cheered as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived July 9 to celebrate this monumental victory.
Recapturing Mosul is Iraq’s biggest win against ISIS, but the worst is far from over.
Tens of thousands of homes and several main bridges were damaged or destroyed during battle. In some places, entire streets disappeared under the rubble of concrete, dust and rebar. In a desperate attempt to inflict as much damage as possible to the city as they retreated, ISIS set fire to one of the city’s hospitals.
They also were responsible for the destruction of churches, which ISIS used as weapons-making factories, and the damage caused to basic infrastructure. One U.N. official estimated that restoring water and electricity to the city will cost $1 billion.
Although the extent of the physical damage ISIS caused Mosul is staggering, the psychological and spiritual wounds they inflicted on its people are truly beyond words.
Our partner, who has been on the ground since the offensive started, told me the story of a young mother whom ISIS captured in the war-ravaged city. The guards took away her baby and starved her for three days. When they finally offered her a plate of food, she eagerly ate it, not knowing when her next meal would arrive. It was only then that her cruel guards looked down at her and said, “We cooked your 1-year-old son — and this is what you just ate.”
This is just one of countless stories about the horrors ISIS unleashed on Mosul. I’ve heard of desperate fathers cooking cardboard to have something to fill their children’s empty bellies; of girls suffering sexual exploitation to the point of death, and of brutalities that are too raw and disturbing to share here.
The fight to free Mosul may have ended, but the humanitarian battle to bring healing to Mosul’s people has just begun. And just because a military victory has been achieved, it doesn’t mean danger has passed.
Research on the postwar health effects of civil conflict concludes that the majority of death and disability actually occurs after violence stops and a political solution is reached. In fact, postwar time is the most critical for rebuilding infrastructure — especially in health services — to prevent the spreading of deadly viruses and to treat preventable diseases.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa proves this point. This epidemic struck Liberia 11 years after its civil war had ended. International aid to the country had dwindled, and Liberia had no resources to rebuild its health systems. The departure of underpaid physicians, coupled with a faulty health system unprepared to properly survey, identify and respond to a health crisis, laid the groundwork for the worst outbreak of Ebola in history.
We must avoid making the same mistake in Mosul. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in the early 2000s, there’s been an exodus of physicians and medical professionals from Iraq. In the past few years, ISIS has driven even more out of the country, stretching hospitals and medical resources to capacity.
This is the time to support the people of Mosul, not abandon them. We must help those who are displaced and desperately trying to survive — for them, every day is a matter of life or death. And, just as important, we need to promote the work of local organizations and indigenous leaders who will rebuild the city’s infrastructures.
This is why World Help works with national partners who are committed to the long-term work in a country. We don’t rush in and head out when the conflict is over or when supplies run out. Our clinics and humanitarian programs have been providing lifesaving aid to refugees outside Mosul and in neighboring countries since the conflict in the Middle East began. We are in it for the long haul.
I invite you to join our work. Together, we can help rebuild and bring hope to Mosul.