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Activists Shoulder Cleanup in Mosul with Future in Doubt

Ibn al-Atheer children’s hospital in Mosul

(c) Financial Times

As the Islamic State was withdrawing from the eastern half of Mosul 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.

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 Islamic State 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 Islamic State takeover. 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. "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."

Under Islamic State rule, the hospital was permitted to function. 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. "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 the Islamic State commandeered labs, destroyed buildings and torched the library.

"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."

Iraq's future and the struggle against Islamic State-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.


(c) 2017 The Columbus Dispatch

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