Baghdad, Iraq – Karam Hassawy has Mosul on his mind.
For two years in enforced exile in Turkey, he has frequently thought about every street, every smell and every sound of the place he calls home. He hopes against hope that everything will be the same when he returns.
“I have not forgotten Mosul – since the moment I left the city, I wander in its streets and alleys every day in my mind,” Hassawy, 25, told Al Jazeera. “Whenever I feel nostalgic, I go for a walk in its old alleys and smell the famous Mosul food that I have not tasted for more than two years.
“I miss everything there, my family, friends, my childhood [haunts] … the bells of the churches … the many old neighbourhoods I cannot forget.”
Two years after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) captured Mosul , former residents say they remember Iraq’s second largest city as boasting the best urban quality of life in the modern Middle East, in addition to its rich, illustrious past.
They recall a city of spires and minarets, of ruins hinting at ancient glories, of teenagers relaxing by the Tigris River. They remember Mosul’s bookstores and learning centres, its restaurants and cafes offering local delicacies, and its lively music and gossip, shared among 2.5 million people ranging from Sunni and Shia Muslims, to Christians, to Kurds and Yazidis.
Now, as they prepare for the city’s liberation, they fear the worst.
“I have mixed feelings about going back to my city,” said Samer Elias, 42, an Iraqi writer who fled Mosul for Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdish region in 2014, soon after ISIL took the city. “I am afraid I won’t find the same city I left more than two years ago because of ISIL [atrocities] against Mosul’s churches and monasteries, our homes and monuments that form our collective memory.
“I am haunted with fear of what might happen to me, seeing our home destroyed, along with all the memories we have of it.”
In its old districts, you would find alley after alley where people from many religious sects lived together in peace. It's a place where a Christian chief builder would volunteer to restore the minaret of the old Great Mosque. It has been sad to see the city of date and honey cakes, of bookstores, and of mystical Sufi musicians in the hands of fundamentalist and puritanical ISIL.
Residents who remained after ISIL took over say that the destruction began soon after Mosul’s capture. They detail the decimation of its cultural life: the shuttering of cinemas, music halls, and festivals; the destruction of ancient monuments; and the revision of school curricula and the burning of books.
“Mosul’s teens and college students used to play music, draw, and even make sculptures by the banks of Tigris River,” said Hamza al-Fakhry, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Mosul who sought refuge in Turkey in 2014. “All of those parties and carnivals happened just several years ago in what’s now one of the most difficult cities in the world to live in.”
Residents recalled a place where people of diverse ethnicities, languages and faiths lived harmoniously.
“In its old districts, you would find alley after alley where people from many religious sects lived together in peace,” said Mosul novelist Ghada Siddiq Rasool, the author of Nineveh Diaspora, who fled to Baghdad in 2015.
“It’s a place where a Christian chief builder would volunteer to restore the minaret of the old Great Mosque. It has been sad to see the city of date and honey cakes, of bookstores, and of mystical Sufi musicians in the hands of fundamentalist and puritanical ISIL,” she told Al Jazeera.
Today, residents and exiles say Mosul is characterised by impassable roads planted with explosives, shattered walls and windows, and abandoned places of worship. Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims are absent, having been forced to flee their homes.
What is happening in Mosul today follows the pattern of what happened in Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi, where ISIL left thousands dead and the cities in ruin. Many are worried about the implications for Mosul’s treasured layers of history.
Around 700 BC, Assyrian King Sennacherib moved his empire’s capital to Nineveh, and expanded it to make it the largest city in the world, at the time. It was also one of the most lavish, with seven-mile-long fortification walls, 15 impressive city gates, a complex irrigation system and a royal park with trees from other parts of the world conquered by the Assyrian empire.
Since 2014, ISIL has posted videos showing fighters hacking and blowing up statues on the ancient city gates and looting antiquities from the Mosul Museum.
“The monument I long for is the Assyrian Lamassu ‘Winged Bull’ at the ancient Gate of Nergal – it was removed by the extremists,” Hassawy said.
“I cried when I heard they burned the books and manuscripts at the central library. Those were among the most precious treasures in the heritage of the people of Mosul. Mosul is inseparable from its history; those monuments had given the city its identity. It is a big loss.”
Researchers note that ISIL has used the territory it holds in a ruthless manner.
“They’ve also looted the site of Nineveh,” said Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, a professor of archaeology at the University of Udine in Italy. “We’ll possibly see artefacts popping up in Europe or the US, in the next few years.”
As the Iraqi army’s offensive inches closer to dislodging ISIL from Mosul and its surrounding towns, locals say they hope to find the city they once knew, with all of its splendid details.
Hassawy longs for the ancient Clock Church that he used to pass on a regular basis, or the old bridge that used to revive him when he was tired because “the sounds of the river used to give me hope and life”. The mixture of smells in the area pulled him in different directions: To the right, at the entrance to the market, smoke wafted from a kebab grill as people savoured succulent grilled meats. Nearby was a fried fish stall and pastry shop, all tempting him with their flavours.
“Everything in my city is beautiful – even the black columns of smoke as they pass over Nineveh,” he said. “Mosul is a living memory for all those who have passed through or lived in it, despite the tragedies, fatigue, and forced exile to other governorates and countries. Nineveh is still the mother that embraces me wherever I go.”