Today, a year after Mosul’s liberation from ISIS, the city’s original, pre-war population has shrunk by three-quarters. That’s in part because much of the city—especially the west, where the worst of the fighting took place—remains unlivable. Mountains of glass, rubbish, metal wires, and broken rock spill out of hollowed buildings. A noose dangles inside the back corridor of a blackened, burnt church. Books, clothes, cassette tapes, and dishes lie crushed on the street. The destruction is at its worst in the Old City, where the air is sweet and thick with the stench of dead bodies.
So far, the international community has contributed some $30 billion to rebuild areas damaged in the fight against ISIS. But reconstruction has been hampered by corruption, disorganization, and dysfunctional governance. Even if Mosul is rebuilt, however, lingering distrust and ongoing sectarian and ethnic violence may doom Iraq’s post-ISIS future.
Distrust of Sunni Arabs is one of the biggest obstacles to reconciliation: ISIS adheres to an extreme strain of Sunni Islam. Baghdad has officially encouraged the displaced—including Sunni Arabs, many of whom stayed in Mosul throughout the occupation and now fear they’ll be regarded as ISIS supporters—to return. But Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, and former neighbors threatening to take justice into their own hands, often prevent them from reaching their hometowns. In a report published in February by the Norwegian Refugee Council, 16 percent of displaced Iraqis from Anbar, a mostly Sunni Arab province, said their attempts to come home had been blocked. One in five Iraqis—again, mostly Sunni Arabs—from one refugee camp in Anbar in December said they’d tried to go home, but fled again due to threats of revenge.
Sunni Arabs should not be treated indiscriminately as ISIS supporters, Ali al-Barudi, a 36-year-old English professor at the University of Mosul, told me. While it’s true that some Sunni Arabs did join ISIS, “you cannot blame 95 percent of the people because a tiny percent did that,” Barudi said. There must be a distinction between the guilty and the innocent, he said. “We should not be dealt with as oppressors. We are victims,” Barudi said. Marginalization was a key reason why so many Sunnis supported ISIS in the first place. Now, the Sunnis returning to Western Mosul are facing suspicion and alienation once again, he said. “What do you expect they think of us when they live in destroyed buildings with corpses around the corner? … They are more than abandoned. They are forsaken.”
Yet, building trust is difficult even among Sunni Arabs themselves, especially since ISIS ideology and militant cells persist. Ghassan Mohammad, a 28-year-old working in a camp near Kirkuk for displaced families, recalled one day last year when he met a seven-year-old Sunni Arab boy, crying of thirst, who’d fled the ISIS-held town of Hawija. “I gave him water and he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want water from an infidel,’” Mohammad told me. Mohammad, also a Sunni Arab, wore Western clothes and didn’t have a beard; the child, traumatized from living under ISIS occupation, branded him just as his occupiers would.