DUHOK, IRAQ—Every morning for more than two years, Farooq Kareem pored over Iraqi and international media reports in Arabic and English, eagerly awaiting news about the anticipated military operation to reclaim Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State. Last month, when Iraqi forces finally began their assault on Mosul, he found himself torn.
“I have two opposite opinions,” said Kareem. “I am very much happy for the liberation. But I am very worried for my relatives in Mosul.”
Like Kareem, international governments and aid organizations find themselves deeply concerned about the dangers that expelling the Islamic State from Mosul may pose to the estimated million-plus civilians still living inside the city following more than two years of occupation. Yet there is another longer-term concern: that military and diplomatic strategists seemingly have no clear plan for what will happen after the military campaign. As Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh Province told The New York Times, “there is no agreement about anything after the liberation. It is very dangerous.”
Most dangerous of all may be the prevailing notion among policymakers that the United States, in collaboration with regional powers and Iraqi actors from outside Mosul, should decide the city’s future. There is a capable force uniquely positioned to lead the political, social and economic reconstruction of Mosul: Maslawis, as the people of Mosul are called in Arabic, many of whom have been displaced but who have not given up on their city.
Kareem, a professor at Mosul University’s College of Medicine, is one of them. He fled Mosul with his family in June 2014 and has settled 75 miles to the north in Zahko. (He did not want his real name used because he still has some family in Mosul.) Now he comes to the Zahko General Hospital most days to serve as supervisor of teaching for approximately 60 Mosul University fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year medical students who are continuing their studies there as guests of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The tale of Mosul University since 2014 is instructive. It can be used to help remind policymakers of the great, untapped human potential that should be the raw material for reconstructing Mosul. The Islamic State has occupied what remains of the physical Mosul University campus and has been running classes taught under a strict interpretation of Islam that does not permit study of literature or art. (See: The Islamic State’s Plan for Universities.) Meanwhile, though, the core of the university’s pre-Islamic State administration —including the university president and vice president for scientific affairs—have relocated 45 miles north of Mosul to the predominantly Kurdish city of Duhok, where they have been leading a university in exile.
In addition to the medical students in Zahko, 5,000 humanities students take evening classes in a high school just outside Duhok. Another 10,000 students in the sciences attend classes and use laboratories in an old Kirkuk University science building that the university has loaned to displaced Mosul University students. Some students and professors make a six-hour weekly round-trip drive between Duhok and Kirkuk, suffering crowded checkpoints and encounters with suspicious Kurdish security forces.
Obay Al-Dewachi, the president of Mosul University, who leads the university from a second-floor room in a Duhok motel that has been converted into an administration building, says the displaced students studying in makeshift circumstances represent the future of Mosul.
“It’s very, very difficult to imagine the future,” he says, shaking his head. “We will listen to people who can help us and say if it’s acceptable.” Al-Dewachi is apprehensive. He understands that Mosul cannot be retaken from the Islamic State without international assistance. But he lived through the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and saw all that can go wrong when foreign military and reconstruction experts make post-conflict plans for a place they do not fully understand. Al-Dewachi has suffered personally from the resulting insecurity that enveloped Mosul—he was shot in the neck in a failed 2011 assassination attempt. He was relatively fortunate; nearly 500 academics were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012, some because they were viewed as Western collaborators, others simply because of their elite positions. But he still finds that the sacrifices he and his colleagues have made to keep a major university alive during a catastrophe have not translated into respect. Even his own government distrusts him and his colleagues.
“It is difficult to take any decisions under these circumstances,” he says. “We are suffering from a misunderstanding from Baghdad. The ministry of higher education is looking at Mosul University not like Baghdad and the other universities. We receive small funds, no support. They’re looking at us as if we said ‘Welcome to Da’esh.’ We don’t have our houses, our money, our gold. We left Mosul without anything.
“We left Mosul thinking we were going back after three days. Now it’s a dream.” Al-Dewachi wants to “find another Mosul,” meaning to help create a new one.
No one knows what that other Mosul will look like, only that massive efforts will be needed to build it. For now, the international community—including the United Nations, the United States and countless international non-governmental organizations—are grappling with the likelihood of more than a million newly displaced people without nearly enough resources to assist them. It is the story of modern violent conflict. There are no global answers. The only real solutions are local ones, crafted one community at a time.
In the case of Mosul, that will mean involving those people who have already shown great resilience during the awful reign of the Islamic State. Only they know how best to meet challenges that begin with the visible (massive damage to the city’s physical infrastructure) and continue to the invisible (effects on young children whose only schooling has occurred under the Islamic State).
“We managed to recreate the university here from nothing, thanks to God,” says Nazar Qibi, Mosul University’s acting vice president for scientific affairs. “But when we return to Mosul University, we hope with friends and the government, we’ll be able to set priorities, some short-term, some medium-term and some long-term. We hope our young faculty will be able to take part in the reconstruction and rebuild the university again.”
Whether that can happen depends on whether real opportunities await those young, energetic people who have struggled to continue their educations under makeshift conditions. Will they stay and try to rebuild, or will the best and the brightest quickly lose hope and go elsewhere?
“It depends how Mosul is after ISIS,” says Ibrahim, a sixth-year medical student studying in Zahko. “If Mosul is safe, I’d like to return to my family and friends. But if it’s dangerous …” Just then, Salal, another sixth-year medical student interrupts him. “For me, [it’s] Mosul. If all of us go outside, how can Mosul live? We want to return to our wounded city as soon as possible.”
The first move belongs to those preparing for reconstruction. We can choose to listen to Maslawis—for whom the stakes are highest—and ensure that they have the support they need to become leaders of a peaceful, post-Islamic State Mosul. Or we can choose to lead the way ourselves, trusting and investing in Western ideas and organizations with track records developed elsewhere. Either way, we—and the next generation of young Maslawis—will live with the consequences.
Thomas Hill is director of the Initiative for Peace-building through Education at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Katerina Siira is a master’s student at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.