As the Islamic State 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 — 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 (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 Islamic State 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.