MOSUL, Iraq—The week before Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May, chunks of black gunk floated through the gutters of Wadi Hajar, a decimated neighborhood in West Mosul. Men with missing limbs hovered near a truck carrying staffers from an NGO offering legal services, waiting to ask for help. One of them, Muhammad Mustafa, had come to the NGO to seek a birth certificate for his daughter, who was born while the city was under occupation by the Islamic State, which lasted from 2014 to 2017. A Sunni Arab living in a poor neighborhood, he’d supported his wife and two daughters by working with the Iraqi police—a risky proposition in post–U.S. invasion Iraq, as al-Qaeda’s influence spread across the region. When ISIS took Mosul in June 2014, Mustafa fled to his grandfather’s village in a southern suburb of Mosul. “They said the people who worked with police were infidels. They took more than a thousand and killed them, including some of my cousins,” Mustafa said.
Mustafa remained in hiding for four years and returned to his neighborhood after it was liberated by the Iraqi army. But he didn’t know how he’d live: West Mosul still lay in ruin, and he had been put on a government blacklist, barring him from his old job with the police. “The government thinks everyone is Daesh if they lived here,” Mustafa said.
Today, a year after Mosul’s liberation from ISIS, the city’s original, prewar population has shrunk by three-quarters. That’s in part because much of the city—especially the western part, 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 7-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.
Mohammad told me that he’d just returned from a funeral for two shepherds killed by an ISIS cell in Hawija. “The reality is that ISIS still exists in Kirkuk. In Hawija, the villagers go on rooftops with guns to guard against ISIS attacks at night.” he said. “There is so much fear.”
For minorities, security must come before any talk of reconciliation. In a camp near Shariya, a small Yazidi town in Iraq’s Kurdish region, 36-year-old Leila Murat said she would never return to Sinjar, the mountain from which ISIS expelled some 200,000 Yazidis in 2014. She’d suffered debilitating trauma after her escape, lying immobile on a mat for three months and then swinging into bursts of binge eating, anxiety, and insomnia. Twenty-five of her family members had been captured by ISIS, she said; six remained missing. “Even if all the people return, I won’t go back. I remember everything. I will imagine what happens,” Murat said.
Groups like Yazda, an NGO that provides relief for Yazidis and collects case studies detailing individual experiences of rape, captivity, and massacre, are central in the effort to help minorities return. “People need to feel trust to go back,” Yazda’s director Murad Ismael told me. The perceived lack of due process against ISIS fighters has left the Yazidis feeling worthless and unprotected, he added. In his mind, the expedited trials taking place in Baghdad’s special counterterrorism courts against alleged ISIS members and their families, with death sentences meted out in minutes, do not qualify as justice. “I want to know what happened to my community. I want to know why ISIS said the Yazidis were infidels. I want them to go deep into the root of this problem.”
But it’s unclear whether the government in Baghdad is equipped to peform such introspection. Iraq has no effective policy or institutional frameworks for minority rights, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues has pointed out. Vulnerable minority groups were already suffering discrimination, persecution and displacement in the chaos of pre-ISIS Iraq: the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that from 2003 to 2008, nearly half of Iraq’s minority communities had already left the country because of targeted violence including murder, abduction, torture, rape, and intimidation, along with the destruction of their religious buildings and homes. While the 2005 constitution includes some clauses guaranteeing religious freedom and political representation for minorities, none of that helped when ISIS began abducting and massacring Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and others. With the Iraqi government, Kurdish authorities, and the international community still unable to ensure protection in post-ISIS Iraq, the chances of their return remain low.
As for transitional justice: Iraq has detained more than 19,000 people on terrorism-related charges, mostly related to ISIS, and convicted at least 8,861 since 2013, according to a recent study from the United Nations University. At least 3,130 of those convicted have been sentenced to death on terrorism-related charges. The study also found that the justice system fails to distinguish between different levels of ISIS involvement—an ISIS fighter is often treated the same way as the wife of an ISIS fighter. The government has also often relied heavily on anonymous informants, and convicted suspects on thin evidence. The danger is that this sort of overly punitive system could backfire and create new grievances that would fuel more extremism and violence, the study said.
For now, then, Iraq’s fate may lie in the hands of peace builders working across sectarian lines. Back in Kirkuk, Mohammad eventually won over the 7-year-old, he said, by visiting the family and taking him to children’s programs until he stopped repeating extremist rhetoric. The Sunni youth who were suspicious of NGOs were also capable of change. They just needed work, education, financial help, and hope, Mohammad said. He’d met one 13-year-old son of an ISIS fighter who was bullied by others in the camp nearly to the point of suicide. Mohammad mentored him and convinced him to join a music program, until he went back to school and started thinking about the future.
“Even if two out of 10 families might try to kill me, I’m helping eight families,” Mohammad said. “I feel this work is amazing. It’s an indescribable feeling, just to save one person’s life.”
Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.