Mosul, Iraq – It’s a blistering 45C, and tempers are running hot as gridlocked vehicles inch their way over the “Old Bridge” – the only fully functioning bridge in Mosul.
Eighteen-year-old Shaymaa Al-Saffar is among the legions of frustrated commuters. A second-year medical student at Mosul University, she carpools with five other girls to travel to and from her home on Mosul’s battle-ravaged west side to her classes on the east side of the city.
“Of course it affects my life here,” Al-Saffar told Al Jazeera.
During rush hour, it can take Al-Saffar up to 30 minutes to cross from one side of the Old Bridge – also called the First Bridge – to the other.
“In the morning, sometimes I need to run to my classes because I have a teacher who doesn’t like us to be late,” she said. “Once, I had to skip the whole first lesson.”
Bridges are a defining feature of Mosul. The city boasts five of them that stretch across the Tigris River, connecting the eastern part of the city to its western side. But the war to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the city has left this vital infrastructure largely crippled.
Coalition air strikes designed to corner ISIL in the western part of Mosul partially damaged all five of the city’s bridges. ISIL then completely destroyed two of then in an ultimately futile effort to stop the Iraqi army from advancing on its stronghold.
But two years after Mosul’s liberation, rebuilding the city’s bridges has proven to be painfully slow, bringing misery and frustration to daily routines and disrupting efforts to reconstruct the city and return it to business as usual.
The glacial pace of rehabilitating Mosul’s bridges is brutal for those living west of the Tigris in the Old City, which was decimated during the war to root out ISIL.
Once filled with shops, schools, hospitals and hundreds of thousands of homes, much of the Old City is still in ruins, forcing those who live there to cross a bridge to either go to work, get to school, or perform other routine functions of daily life.
But the bridge traffic – which is often restricted by the military during the afternoon rush hour so it flows eastward, where most people live – makes residents of the Old City reluctant to venture across the river unless it is absolutely necessary.
Beyond the inconvenience, the Old Bridge can’t accommodate large trucks – a fact that hinders efforts to rebuild the devasted western parts of the city.
Mosul’s five bridges were named numerically according to when they were built. Before the war against ISIS, Al-Saffar preferred to travel over the Fourth Bridge – the closest one to her home on the west bank of the Tigris.
But the Fourth Bridge is only partially fixed, and crossing it in heavy traffic can take up to three hours.
“It didn’t take any time before the war,” said Al-Saffar. “It was just open and you got on it. [Back then], it was maybe half an hour [from my home to the university].”
The misery of extended commutes can also flow from east to west.
Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor who asked Al Jazeera not to use his surname in order to protect his privacy, lives on the less-damaged east side, but works in a hospital on the west side.
Ahmad takes the Fifth Bridge to and from work each day. Since the bridge was partially repaired, his average commute time has fallen from over an hour each way to around 35 minutes. It’s an improvement, but still longer than prewar levels.
“The progress is present, but it’s a slow process,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera.
Counting the cost?
Donors have pledged upward of $30bn towards Iraq’s reconstruction. But nailing down how much of that money has been received and earmarked for Mosul’s bridges – and how much has been spent so far on actual rebuilding – is difficult to determine.
The Iraqi government established the Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terrorist Operations (REFAATO) to plan and coordinate Iraq’s recovery and reconstruction – including the repair of damaged bridges and the construction of new ones.
REFAATO publishes no data about funding or how much money has been spent on Mosul’s bridges. Al Jazeera asked the project manager for the Nineveh Governorate, Salim Othman, to count the cost.
While Othman confirmed he was responsible for managing the funding for Nineveh (an area that includes Mosul), he said he could only provide rough figures.
According to Othman, the Old Bridge – currently Mosul’s smallest and only fully functioning bridge – cost between $2.5m and $2.7m to rebuild. The Fourth Bridge, which is only partially repaired, has cost REFAATO $1.7m so far. The Second Bridge, which is under repair, will cost the fund $8m, while the Third Bridge will cost about $15m to bring back into full service.
The Fifth Bridge was returned to partial service by the Iraqi military, which performed repairs. But Othman told Al Jazeera it would take REFAATO another two and half years to restore the Fourth and Fifth bridges to full service.
He said that though he understands why people are frustrated with the slow pace of progress, “those bridges are delayed because of the slow release and shortage of the funding”.
Nevertheless, the delays and the lengthy timelines for restoring Mosul’s bridges have raised some eyebrows.
Everything happening now is better than living with ISIS.
Fifty-one-year-old Muhammed, who asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname to protect his privacy, owns a construction company that won the contract to rebuild a bridge between Mosul and the city of Erbil. The bridge spans 70 metres and has two-lane traffic each way.
Muhammed told Al Jazeera it took him only 10 months to finish the job.
“If they want to work, they can, but they don’t want to,” said Muhammed, who added that he believes the delays have nothing to do with a lack of funding or a shortage of qualified contractors to carry out repairs.
“Everyone wants to take the money and put it into their own pockets,” he said.
Ahmad said the Iraqi government provides financial support for reconstruction, but that much of it disappears when it reaches Mosul.
“The local government and the mayor used to steal it,” he said, noting there were recent corruption allegations against the previous governor.
A brief published this year by the Middle East Research Institute noted that during a policy debate in February, Iraq’s Minister of Housing and Reconstruction, Bangen Rekani, “stressed that no pledge from the donors has materialised so far, and the Iraqi government has failed to sufficiently address its own structural and functional weaknesses, including corruption”.
While reconstruction drags on, some Mosul residents find comfort by putting their frustrations in a perspective that few outsiders can even imagine.
“Because everything happening now is better than living with ISIS,” said Ahmad, “I can withstand hours in crowded traffic rather than living with ISIS.”