A group of young musicians set up at the entrance to the university library in Mosul, tuned the strings of their violin, oud and guitar and began to play. A not very large crowd gathered and listened quietly to the music from the Nergal Strings group, named after the Babylonian deity that symbolizes the sunrise.
A month after the liberation of Iraq’s second largest city from the rule of Islamic State, most of the city’s refugees have still not found shelter, city infrastructures are in ruins, and at least according to the video clip showing this surrealistic musical performance, it is still possible to smell the smoke and ash left from the burning of the library that held tens of thousands of books.
The book burning was one of the first ritual ceremonies ISIS conducted. The group decided what was permissible to read and could be studied, and what needed to be destroyed. But the students discovered that not everything went up in flames. A few thousand books still survived and over the past few weeks since the liberation, a group of students have been volunteering to restore the library. They are collecting the books and moving them to safer locations, cleaning the library building and trying to prepare it for reopening.
These volunteers even organized a festival named From the Ashes the Book was Born, where they collected donations and recruited more volunteers for the work – and where the concert happened.
Artist Abdul Rahman al-Dulaimi, wearing a baseball cap, white polo shirt and short, styled beard, displayed a series of photographs hung with clothespins on a line, which show the library before and after the fire. He also used his palette to draw on each of the photographs his vision of the rebuilt library.
The determination of Mosul’s young people, who have so far lived under Saddam Hussein, the American occupation and the Iraqi regime that rose after the war, before the conquest by ISIS, may be the only hope for rehabilitating the city – and the entire country. Despite the national pride that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi heaped on the Iraqi army that drove out ISIS, in Mosul, which has a Sunni Muslim majority, they remember quite well not just the abuse and massacres by ISIS, but also the abuse of civilians by the Iraqi army’s soldiers.
These are the same soldiers who fled ISIS when the organization entered the region in June 2014, and the same soldiers and militia members who are now keeping order and providing security in Mosul.
The city’s recent liberation is an important strategic turning point in the war against ISIS. Mosul was a critical source of revenue for the organization, which ruled not just through its reign of terror, but by looting the Iraqi banks, stealing the public’s savings on deposit there, extorting taxes and levying fees on movement, purchases or documents the residents needed. Now it will take billions of dollars to rehabilitate the city, and the freed residents are once again worried that their own government will once again place them at the bottom of its list of priorities.
These citizens know quite well how the security forces operate in Ramadi in the southern Anbar province, a region that was also freed from ISIS, and they are very worried that the model in Ramadi will be copied in Mosul. The lines at the checkpoints between Ramadi and Baghdad take hours, and sometimes even days. People say they cannot get to work because of them, but usually it is just the abuse from the Iraqi soldiers that bothers them. These soldiers act as an occupying army, pushing around women and children and arresting supposed suspects even if there is no excuse whatsoever to do so.
Many people choose to leave their cars and pass through the checkpoints on foot, but then they are forced to walk a few kilometers in the Iraqi heat, which can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), until they reach the nearest taxi stand. Many professionals and businessmen have decided to leave Ramadi’s transportation problems and checkpoints and move elsewhere, including the Kurdish region to the north.
One doctor interviewed on an Iraqi news website said he feared the government’s real intent was to empty Ramadi of its Sunni residents and to repopulate it with Shi’ites, which would thin out the local political opposition. Ramadi was the symbol of the Sunni struggle even before ISIS took control.
U.S. President Donald Trump made it clear recently that the United States will no longer be involved with nation-building, a term used by the George W. Bush administration as one of the justifications for the war in Iraq in 2003. The new policy means the United States will drastically cut the civilian aid it provides Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At the same time, the U.S. Congress is debating a bill intended to help stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria, but the real target is Iran. The bill does not relate to Iraqi government or Shi’ite militias operating in its name, it does not mention rebuilding civilian infrastructure and does not even claim to promote Iraqi democracy.
Washington, which is not particularly moved by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s destruction of Turkish democracy, cares even less about the state of democracy in Iraq. An Iraqi bill to impose life sentences or astronomic fines of $40,000 on journalists or newspapers that purportedly destabilize the country does not seem to interest the Western media either.
Iraqi citizens are the ones who will have to bear the burden of rebuilding their country, whether it is a library or hospitals. This will be the arena where the new internal war will take place in Iraq, and it may very well turn out to be no less difficult than the war against ISIS.