Mosul, Iraq – Western Mosul is in ruins. From the tenth floor of a badly damaged hotel in Iraq’s second-largest city, destroyed buildings and roads can be seen for miles on end.
There is no building that has not been touched by fights and air attacks. The smell of decaying bodies fills the hot July air.
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Weapons, bullets, bodies and objects torn from everyday life are buried under the rubble. Soldiers have been working to rescue civilians still trapped inside.
The women of Mosul are exhausted, and their babies are hungry. Barefoot and wounded, they walk for hours to reach safety.
One elderly woman with a blood-stained face falls to the ground, crying “help me” to the Iraqi soldiers who are still searching for people in the rubble. She says she drank her own urine to stay alive while awaiting rescue.
“We were locked in basements, women and children,” she tells Al Jazeera. “We shouted, but no one could help us. No one rescued us for weeks. ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS] fighters surrounded the houses with electric wires to blow up those who tried to escape.”
There are no men around in this area. Some who tried to leave the city were detained by Iraqi forces – some on suspicion of being affiliated with ISIL – while others died in the battle to retake Mosul.
Iraqi soldier Usama el-Umani now guards the area around al-Nuri mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the group’s “caliphate” in the summer of 2014. He pulls a mobile phone from his left pocket and says it belonged to a young ISIL member.
On the phone, he scrolls through dozens of snapshots of everyday life in ISIL-controlled Mosul: In one, a woman brandishes an RPG and a Kalashnikov rifle in front of ISIL’s black flag.
“The defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul ends a battle, but not the war,” Umani tells Al Jazeera. “Our concern is that the fall of Mosul could bring the organisation back to the beginning, to random and violent attacks, especially because sectarian divisions here are far from being resolved.”
Repairing the damage to infrastructure in Mosul – estimated at more than $1bn – will be crucial to facilitating the return of displaced Moslawis, “and it will also help to prevent new fundamentalism being born among the youth”, Asma al-Fasi tells Al Jazeera from her home in the western Mosul neighbourhood of al-Jadida.
“Defeating ISIL in Mosul does not mean that we have destroyed its roots, the deep reasons that generated it,” she says.
The streets around her house are full of rubble, and there is no water or electricity. She lives with her husband and their eight children; they had nine before ISIL entered the city.
“They killed my son after ten days – hanged because he was the Iraqi police barber here in Mosul,” Fasi says, pulling out her son’s photograph from a drawer.
“There is not a woman in Mosul who has not lost a beloved relative, a son, a husband, killed by those assassins,” she says. “Every one of us weeps … in silence, not to bother the others.”
Sometimes, she adds, the local women meet in a house to share memories of their lost loved ones. “When the war arrived in our area … whole families were used as human shields [by ISIL]. Those who tried to escape were hanged.”
Outside her home are several water buckets; each day, she waits in line in front of a warehouse in western Mosul for her turn to fill them. Dozens of women stand for hours in the baking sun each day for water and food distribution from humanitarian agencies who truck it into Mosul. When they cry out in need, soldiers shout for silence.
One woman shows her husband’s identity papers, saying: “The army arrested him one month ago … They said he was an ISIL member, but he was a good man. I’m alone with four children, and I have nothing to eat.” Her smallest son hides amid the folds of her black dress.
“I see only despair around us,” Fasi says. “I asked my children to forgive and to go on. I told my children that we will overcome this tragedy only by letting it go, but every day I find more anger in their eyes.”
Abudi Adwan, 11, today lives in eastern Mosul with his family, having fled from the western Wadi Ajar neighbourhood as fighting gripped the area. They have been sharing a small house with two other families, and Abudi has tried to be a breadwinner, as his own father cannot work after sustaining injuries from ISIL fighters who beat him when he refused to work for them.
“Sometimes I go to a restaurant; the owner gives me 2,000 Iraqi dinars a day, but we can not even buy dinner with 200,000 dinars,” Adwan tells Al Jazeera.
Adwan’s family had a shop in western Mosul, but it was destroyed. When they fled, they brought with them an orphan whose family was killed by an ISIL mortar.
“He is traumatised,” says Adwan’s mother, Arwa. “He wakes up in the middle of the night, shouting, but we do not know what to do. We do not know how to help him, and we cannot even think of sending him to school because we cannot afford to pay for our children either.”