Rubin: People of Mosul are ready to rebuild

Student volunteers clearing the rubble at Mosul University.

MOSUL, Iraq - As ISIS was withdrawing from the eastern half of this city in late January, the jihadis poured gasoline around the empty wards of the Ibn Al Atheer hospital for children. Then they set the hospital alight.The staff and patients had evacuated as Iraqi army liberators drew near. But the jihadis, who had made Mosul the center of their caliphate, were determined to destroy critical infrastructure before retreating across the Tigris to the west side of the city. When doctors returned to this specialty hospital for preemies and kids with leukemia, they found blackened walls and ceilings, and rooms bereft of anything but ashes.

Here's the amazing part. The hospital is functioning again - although the acrid smell of burnt wire and paint permeates the building. No thanks are due the Baghdad or provincial Mosul governments, which have done little to help traumatized residents start rebuilding. But an army of volunteers - ordinary Maslawis, as residents call themselves - have rushed to the hospital to swab away charred remains, scrub floors, and donate furniture and funds.

This surge in civic activism, also seen in other parts of the city, provides a spark of hope that Mosul can return to normal, even as the battle for the western half of the city continues.

The self-help squads of volunteers at Al Atheer - and at ravaged Mosul University - represent the stark opposite of the evil ideology that produced the ISIS death cult. Many of the volunteers are young, educated, and moderate in outlook and, one must add, all male in a culturally conservative city. They can't wait around for corrupt pols in the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to decide whether to revive a mainly Sunni city.

Nor can they wait for the traditional Sunni leadership of Mosul, which is bitterly divided and failed to prevent an ISIS takeover (some may even have been complicit). While the army has delivered humanitarian aid, provincial officials seem clueless about rebuilding. One month after the liberation of east Mosul, the city is still without water or electricity, and government employees, including teachers, aren't being paid.

So Dr. Nashwan Ahmed, a hematologist, is coordinating the youthful cleanup squads and financial donors whose contributions he lists in a ruled notebook. "We are now rebuilding our hospital, with no government support, but with donations from citizens," he says. "One man brought six generators, another rebuilt the casualty unit, which was completely burned, and two wards have been completely rehabbed with donations. Another man gave us money to buy oxygen tanks.

"We have good people here. It is political differences that brought our troubles," the doctor adds.

Under ISIS rule, the hospital was permitted to function, but Ahmed ignored the constant religious lectures of the jihadis sent to run it. Two weeks after East Mosul was liberated, jihadis directed four drone attacks on the hospital from West Mosul. One hit a child with leukemia and another Ahmed's empty car.

Why would anyone be that vicious?

"As a doctor, I diagnose them as psychopaths," he says. "Every religion has a message from God, but their translation of the message is abnormal. I am Muslim, but I've never read any religious book that orders you to kill children."

Yet Iraqi political fights between Sunnis and Shiites created the space in which psychopaths could flourish and smash the world of the "good people." Now, without political reconciliation in Baghdad, the space for decent Maslawis could shut down again.

On the edge of the spacious Mosul University campus, a group of volunteers wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with a "Group for the Future" logo are painfully aware of this paradox. All students or alums, these young men are shoveling up rubble on the wrecked campus, where ISIS commandeered labs, destroyed buildings, and torched the library. Some buildings where the jihadis set up headquarters were bombed.

"This university was the best in Iraq," one graduate told me, tears in his eyes. Student Alaa Kassem added, "We are trying to clean the street. We want to work in peace. But all the people are very scared because we don't know if we have a future." Many faculty have fled, probably never to return, including Christians and members of other minority sects. No one knows if this seat of learning can be revived.

"I keep saying, 'Let's get the old Mosul back again,'" says Muamar, a young law school graduate and volunteer. "At university, I had close Christian and Yazidi friends. That was the real Mosul."

Muamar hid in his house for two years and is still obviously traumatized. "We've been through three years of hell," he says. "The majority of Mosul was against ISIS but could do nothing or they would be accused of being infidels. Fear of beheading was the ghost haunting the city." ISIS came to the house of one of Muamar's close friends and took him away. He was never seen again.

"We don't see signs that we can get the city back as before," says the young lawyer, still obviously worried. "People are afraid. Before ISIS came, some jihadis were jailed but they paid their way out." He fears the same thing could happen again if Iraq's politicians maintain their corrupt behavior and sectarian divisions.

Iraq's future and the struggle against ISIS-style terrorists depend on whether this war has chastened politicians enough to change behavior and give good Iraqis time to flourish. The volunteer spirit in Mosul shows the existence of a new generation that wants to be proactive but isn't strong enough to combat jihadism without help.

Their activism can be bolstered by international aid groups. And it can be helped by constant Western pressure on officials in Baghdad and Mosul to help Maslawis start rebuilding. Iraqi officials must be prevented from undercutting the "good people" and paving the way for a jihadi return.

Sunday: Can Iraqi politics change enough to prevent ISIS 2.0?

trubin@phillynews.com