One year ago, just three days after the liberation of Mosul, Iraq, Londoner Madiha Raza found a child’s dusty blue shoe in the rubble of a school and brought it home with her. Madiha now reflects on the situation in Mosul since her day of unspeakable horror.
Exactly a year ago I was in Armageddon, deep in the heart of newly liberated Mosul, working with Muslim Aid’s evacuation and food distribution teams.
I was a 29-year-old woman from a north-west London suburb, so nothing in my life had prepared me for what I saw. I crouched in the rubble of a ruined school, holding a battered blue girl's shoe that I found amongst bits of brick debris, it would probably fit a six or seven year old. I saw a dusty toy giraffe which made me think of my nephews who love cuddly toys, and all the time there was a smell I will never forget. The air was thick, smoke mixed with sewage and something else I had never smelled before.
"What's that smell?" I asked my Muslim Aid colleagues, who were risking their lives on a daily basis coming to Mosul to evacuate people. They told me the smell was bodies under the rubble which had not yet been cleared, bodies which had probably been there for days. The smell at the school was particularly strong.
I saw a car right in the middle of what would have been a big classroom, the force of the Mosul blasts threw big trucks in the air. I saw a bus lodged in a wall three storeys up in another part of Mosul.
I had joined Muslim Aid’s Iraq mission from my desk job in the London headquarters, volunteering to help with research, information compiling and practical support as they rescued people, distributed food and water and planned how to help with rehabilitation in the longer term. Muslim Aid and ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department), which supports Muslim Aid’s evacuations, had quite a job on their hands.
One year on Mosul is still in ruins; there is a staggering 8 million* tons of debris and 380,000 people* still displaced in and around the city. Yes, some people returned to their homes just days after their cities were liberated, but they still do not have the basic necessities, support nor infrastructure in place to rebuild their lives to satisfactory standards. As part of the Humanitarian Response Plan, $874 million* has been requested to prepare basic infrastructure in Mosul but only a fraction of this has arrived. Historically, devastation of this magnitude takes decades to recover from, with elections having recently taken place but still no viable government in situ, the future seems uncertain particularly for the 80% of young people* who are unemployed. [*Statistics - Norweigan Refugee Council (NRC)]
I will never forget the many people we met and the terror they had experienced. At Hammam al Alil camp, where 8,000 families were living in tents, people were running up to us all the time, begging us to help them. A woman suddenly grabbed my arm and said: "Please come and meet my father, we need the world to know." She told us how her father and other members of her family had been used as human shields and how together members of the family carried their father with his injuries to the evacuation point – it took nine hours.
Another little girl, 11-year-old Wafa, told me her brother, 14, was killed by a sniper because he was helping people to escape. I am still in awe of the patience and kindness of our team as they supported people, distributed food packages and water in the blazing heat. It's hard to find words to describe the heat, I could barely stand it for 10 minutes but the people waiting for aid had no choice, nor did our distribution team.
It’s not all bleak - civil society and authorities in Iraq are determined to look to the future. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society in partnership with World Federation Aid, The Humanitarian Forum and Islamic Relief UK are organising a conference in Iraq this autumn to focus on ‘building better communities’. However, the dynamics are still volatile. Iraq, as it always does, will recover, but this can only be achieved through communication, coordination and collaboration of local, national and international agencies.
I brought that little blue shoe home with me and it has been in my north London home for a year now. I still think about my Muslim Aid colleagues and don't know how they find the strength. I am trying to come to terms with seeing such goodness and heroism and seeing close-up the results of such evil, all in one day a year ago.
This article appeared in the i newspaper on 20 July 2018.