100 wheelchairs for Mosul

Two and a half years since its liberation from the Islamic State group, large areas of Mosul still lie in rubble. Germany is contributing in a variety of ways to the reconstruction of the city in northern Iraq. Brigit Svensson reports from Iraq

By Birgit Svensson

"The first thing I want to do is to build bridges, as they were almost all destroyed." Najim Abdullah al-Jubouri, the new Governor of the Province of Nineveh in northern Iraq with its capital city of Mosul, has only been in office for four weeks. The 63-year-old Iraqi Army Major General played a crucial role in the liberation of Iraq’s then second largest city from the clutches of IS. Now, he is in charge of a Herculean task – organising the reconstruction of this completely destroyed city.

"There has been massive destruction in Mosul as a result of the fight against IS and the city urgently requires reconstruction." Jubouri reveals that there are currently around one million people living in the city. There used to be over two million. Many former residents still live in camps or in the Kurdish areas. "Yet, the Iraqi government has left us without resources," the Governor adds resignedly. Baghdad has only provided around one hundred million U.S. dollars for the whole province of Nineveh. "That is nothing," says Al-Jubouri.

Abandoned by the central government

In the months since Mosul was freed from the Islamic State group, Faris Naeem al-Janaby has restored and renovated – or patched up, as he says – a total of 1507 houses. The necessary funding did not come from Baghdad, but from Germany. Faris sounds somewhat resigned when he says that he only has around 3300 US dollars available per house. "That is not much, considering the extent of the destruction."

He has often had to face the disappointment of city dwellers when informing them that he could only rebuild one or two of their rooms. Sometimes he could literally only manage the roof over their heads, which had been destroyed during the air strikes on the city. Other times it was their entrance hall, destroyed by a car bomb. Still, Faris' aim is to help as many people as possible.

View of the destroyed Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul (photo: DW)
Schatten der Vergangenheit: Die zerstörte Al-Nuri-Moschee von Mossul. Große Teile der Altstadt von Mossul sind noch immer stark beschädigt, da die Kämpfe gegen den "Islamischen Staat" (IS) vor allem dort stattfanden. Wo früher Häuser standen, liegen jetzt Schutthaufen.

The Iraqi civil engineer from Baghdad turns melancholic when he describes the suffering and desperation of the people he encounters. "It is still possible to live in the eastern section of Mosul," he claims. "Only 20 percent of the houses there were destroyed." But in the west of the city, where IS forces were under siege in the Old City for many weeks and where fierce fighting took place, the destruction was over 80 percent.

West Mosul reduced to rubble

In a recent article published by the American professional journal PLOS Medicine, one reads that 130,000 houses were destroyed in Mosul and some 90,000 people were killed. The extent of this destruction can still be seen today, some two-and-a-half years after the liberation of the city from the jihadists. While life has slowly been returning in the east of the city, with businesses, restaurants, and the university back in operation and people returning to their houses, the western part of Mosul still resembles little more than a pile of rubble.

Faris is proud that he and his organisation were the first to engage in reconstruction in Mosul after IS' reign of terror. In June 2017, the city was considered to have been liberated. By September of that year, the Rebuild Iraq Recruitment Program (RIRP) was set up. Although it has an English name, the NGO is German. It is the only German NGO to have been based in Baghdad for years; from there it operates throughout the whole of Iraq. The name of the NGO – Rebuild – is its mission. How is it possible to cope when for years one only sees ruins, destruction, and misery? "That is Iraq," answers 49-year-old Faris soberly.

"Thank you, Germany!"

"Thank you, Germany! Thank you, Germans, for helping us!" Salma calls out in greeting us as we deliver her daughter a wheelchair. Amal is 15 and severely handicapped from birth. She cannot move and must be fed. Her arms hang loosely by her sides. "Only the Germans work here," says Salma’s neighbour. And the Gulf Emirate of Qatar has provided the necessary funds to rebuild the school. We are in Intisar, one of the largest districts in Mosul, located in the east of the city.

Amal sits in her new wheelchair, to her right stands Faris the construction engineer (photo: RIRP)
„Danke Deutschland!“ - Amal ist 15 Jahre alt, von Geburt an schwer behindert und auf den Rollstuhl angewiesen, da sie nicht gehen kann und gefüttert werden muss. Die Deutsche Botschaft in Bagdad stellte für den Kauf von Rollstühlen in Mossul Geld zur Verfügung. Faris und seine Männer konnten davon 100 Stühle kaufen.

In this district, up to 100,000 people find shelter in around 7000 buildings. The area is home to the very poorest of Mosul's already impoverished population. There are five different nameplates on the only school building in the district – five different educational institutions have to share the same building.

Not victors, but rather losers

Even though the district’s name – Intisar – means "victor", its inhabitants feel more like losers. When IS arrived, a number of inhabitants fled Mosul for the Kurdish Autonomous Region or to camps that were set up for them. IS fighters moved into the empty houses.

As the fight for Mosul raged, the Americans carried out aerial bombings on these houses. The damage is still visible. Now there are only piles of rubble where houses once stood. "Their bombing was very precise," says Salma’s neighbour. "They knew exactly where the IS fighters were." When the former inhabitants returned home after liberation, they often only found debris.

Salma and Amal remained. How could they have fled? An escape from the city with someone who is handicapped was virtually impossible. When Faris and his team came to renovate the house, which was damaged by a car bomb on the street, they noticed that Salma’s daughter was handicapped and did not even have a wheelchair. This was only one of many such cases they observed, said the civil engineer.

"We need wheelchairs for Mosul," they concluded. The German Embassy in Baghdad quickly made funds available for this project. Faris and his team were then able to purchase 100 wheelchairs. At first, they wanted to buy Turkish wheelchairs, because they were supposedly sturdier. But there were no longer any Turkish wheelchairs in Mosul, so they bought ones "Made in China".

Germany is currently the largest donor to Iraq. Over the past three years, more than a billion euros have flowed into the country located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Although the USA has held out the prospect of greater financial assistance, only a small fraction of the promised aid has been delivered. Most of the financial aid from Germany has been spent on the close to four million internal refugees, providing them with food and infrastructure in the refugee camps. Following the supposed victory over IS in 2017, funding is desperately been needed for reconstruction and stabilisation.

Focussed aid as opposed to blanket assistance

The distribution of funds is primarily carried out by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Foreign Office. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the reconstruction of northern Iraq will require funding amounting to 88 billion US dollars and that 28 billion dollars are needed for Mosul alone. By contrast, the Iraqi government budget has only earmarked 120 million dollars for Mosul.

Shortly after the victory over IS in July 2017, there was great willingness to help the destroyed city. However, management was poor run and corruption was rampant, resulting in Mosul gaining a very bad reputation. Governor Joubouri is already the third man to hold the post. "Up until now, a lot has gone wrong," admits the Governor. Yet, he is working hard to change things.

"We urgently need new apartments and houses so that people can return to Mosul. I would like to preserve historic buildings, especially in the Old City, but if some of these structures are totally destroyed, I would prefer to build new residential buildings with a contemporary design in their place. I have shown my people films of Berlin in the aftermath of WWII, and how the Germans coped with the situation. I see this as a model for us. I have also told them about the "Trummerfrauen", the women who carried away the rubble, and how they helped to rebuild the cities, especially Berlin. We need everyone, truly everyone, to help. Yet many are still reluctant.”

The Governor of Mosul concluded by expressing a wish: "Could Germany perhaps construct or renovate a district or a street in both east and west Mosul?" With the technical, architectural and social know-how that Germany possesses, this would be wonderful. Not blanket assistance, but targeted, project-based aid. "Then we will be able to show what Germany has done."

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron