The temperature was high but not unusual, around 45, and the winds were light, just a few kilometers an hour, but on these dry, hot breezes gently sweeping over Mosul on 21 July 2017 there was the scent of something that seemed long forgotten; it was Freedom.
On this day, three years ago, this iconic Iraqi city was liberated from the shackles of violent extremism, putting an end to 36 months of destruction, fear and death.
Early in the year that followed, UNESCO set forth on a path of reconstruction and reconciliation to bring this rich and diverse city, with its pluralistic history at the crossroads of cultures and religions of the Middle East, back to its former glory. At the Kuwait International Conference for the reconstruction of Iraq, in February 2018, UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, announced the launch of the Organization's flagship initiative, "Revive the Spirit of Mosul".
UNESCO Director-General message on the third anniversary of Mosul's liberation
It is through education and culture that Iraqis, men and women alike, will be able to regain control of their destiny and become actors in the renewal of their country.
A year later, UNESCO was granted access to what would become construction sites in the spring of 2019, and has since then made progress in securing and stabilizing key structures that are now in the reconstruction phase.
At first, the townspeople did not know what to make of all the commotion, but as the dust began to rise from the site of the nearly destroyed Al Nouri Mosque and its Al Hadba minaret in the fall of 2019, it became clear that UNESCO had mobilized the international community to not only embrace this city, but to show the world that a people inextricably linked to more than 2000 years of history can never be defeated.
Al-Nouri Mosque represents a moral incentive and it is an archeological landmark, every time I pass by it, I feel sad, having one of the city’s milestones destroyed. Ever since we learned that UNESCO is going to rebuild this religious edifice, we were thrilled hoping that it will be finished soon, and that Al-Hadba Minaret is back standing tall like before.
What is "Revive the Spirit of Mosul"?
If you ask two or three Moslawis, you will likely get two or three different answers. From a city tucked into the west bank of the Tigris River and a crossroads for humanity over millennia, opinions abound.
“The Old City and buildings within it are very important to us as a community. The damage caused by ISIS to our land and properties has been extensive and today you can see all sorts of important historical architectural elements littering the streets and in piles of rubble,” said an older man and longtime Moslawi. “It is good to know that UNESCO will be carefully recording, removing and safely storing the surviving historical items as part of their new restoration programmes in the Old City’’.
“The Old City has suffered badly in the last few years, especially the historic area my family and I live in Al Khatonia and the areas of our neighbors,” said another man and longtime city resident.
We urgently need our schools, mosques and homes rebuilt and are very happy that UNESCO and UN-Habitat are going to help us with this huge task over the next few years.
At its heart, “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” is UNESCO's response for the recovery of Mosul by empowering the population as agents of change involved in the process of rebuilding their city through three main axes: heritage, education and cultural life. It is with a strong message of hope and resistance to Iraq and to the world, a message that an inclusive, cohesive and equitable society is the future that Iraqis deserve, that the Initiative was born.
As a first major step towards the recovery of Mosul, UNESCO is working on the rehabilitation of Al Nouri Mosque and its famous leaning minaret, Al-Tahera and Al-Saa'a churches, funded by the United Arab Emirates. Beyond the rehabilitation of architectural landmarks, the initiative includes on the-job training for young professionals, strengthening the capacities of craftspeople, job-creation opportunities and technical and vocational education.
"Revive the Spirit of Mosul" is also about ensuring a safe learning environment for every child. Under the project “Voices of the children of Old Mosul”, funded by the Government of Japan, UNESCO is working to rebuild schools and empower teachers in their vital role in building peace in the minds of their students and wider community.
I was very young when I studied in Al Ekhlas and I still can't forget the days we were playing, drawing and studying together. When violent extremists took over Mosul we couldn't go to the school because they were teaching us how to kill others.
With the Netherlands, UNESCO is working to prevent the spread of violent extremism through training of primary school teachers. To date, 26 trainers, 743 primary school teachers and managers, and 307 parents have completed UNESCO’s Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education training. This project, funded by the Governments of the Netherlands and Japan, is based on a holistic approach that involves children, teachers, communities, parents and educational staff in the prevention of extremism.
"Revive the Spirit of Mosul" is also about bringing back cultural life in Mosul. With its partner, Action for Hope, UNESCO is working on reviving music in Mosul. The programme is part of a project entitled “Listening to Iraq”, that seeks to empower vulnerable populations by celebrating cultural diversity and strengthening social cohesion. “By bringing back music to Mosul,” said Ehsan Akram Al Habib, a 39-year-old violinist from Mosul who saw the beauty of music robbed from his city, we are trying to bring back life to our city".
“By bringing back music to Mosul we are trying to bring back life to our city. Music is life.
With the Mosul Book Forum, UNESCO is working on the revival of cultural life in Mosul, promoting a culture of peace and reconciliation. By organizing cultural festivals such as “Culture from Ashes” Moslawis have once again a platform for cultural and creative expressions. Film producer, writer and director, Bayat was thrilled to see cinema come back to the streets of Mosul during the festival. “This activity has achieved a milestone in the process of reviving the spirit of Mosul. I’m very happy that we were able to get together and take part in this event.”
Rebuilding monuments and infrastructure is one thing, but we must think about rebuilding minds and mentalities.
What is next?
UNESCO will launch an international architectural competition for the reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque. The competition will take on board the input of the residents of Mosul who will be invited to take part in a large-scale consultation concerning the main reconstruction options for the Minaret and the Mosque.
UNESCO has also started working on the rehabilitation of Al-Aghawat Mosque, funded by Germany, and on the rehabilitation of the old houses of the city, funded by the European Union.
With its Heritage Emergency Fund, UNESCO supported the mapping of the urban heritage of Mosul through an overall survey of the historic urban fabric of the city.
UNESCO is fostering sustainable job creation for youth through quality Technical and Vocational Training (TVET) for skilled construction workers, through a project funded by Japan. Also with Japan and Educate a Child (Qatar), UNESCO will continue its work to ensure quality education for all children.
The timetable of these activities will depend on the ongoing response to COVID-19 in Mosul.
Through all of its projects, UNESCO is working hand in hand with Iraq towards the same goals: to protect, rebuild and educate. Because culture and education are the only long-term responses in the fight against violent extremism and for peace and reconciliation.
This initiative is made possible thanks to the generous contribution and support of the United Arab Emirates, the Government of Germany, Government of Japan, the Government of Qatar, the Government of Canada, the Kingdom of Netherlands, the European Union and the Government of Flanders.
Together, we will bring back the remarkable glory of one of the oldest cities in the world.