Abdelrazaq Salman has lost everything but clings onto one last hope: finding the bodies of his family members killed when his home was bombed in Mosul’s war-devastated Old City in northern Iraq.
“I had a little supermarket. I had worked hard from the age of 10 to build my house,” the Iraqi Kurd in his 40s said, seated on a rubble-strewn pavement in front of storefronts riddled with bullets.
“Now there’s nothing left except piles of stones.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday declared second city Mosul fully retaken from the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group after a months-long operation.
But it is still near-impossible to access the Old City in central Mosul, where sweeping and demining operations continue.
Residents driven out by the fighting, which was at its fiercest in the Old City’s warren of narrow streets, are trying to cross the roadblocks and return.
Salman wants to recover the bodies of five of his relatives, including his 90-year-old father, his mother, 70, and his 22-year-old younger brother.
“They got two bodies out, we’re looking for the others,” he said. Access to the public is forbidden but a friend who works for the municipality is inside.
“A rocket fell on my neighbour, he and his family are dead. The same with another neighbour. A friend lost his mother,” Salman said.
When he spoke of his three-year-old son, whom he has been taking to a psychologist, he burst into tears:
“He became aggressive. He has seen dead people. When his big sister asks him for something and he disagrees, he hits her with whatever he finds to hand,” he said.
“I’m afraid that all these children will become criminals when they grow up.”
A deathly silence hangs over the surrounding streets, occasionally torn by the roar of armoured vehicles rumbling at full throttle in and out of the Old City.
A convoy of Shiite-dominated paramilitary units known as the Hashed al-Shaabi was seen exiting the neighbourhood, playing military music through large speakers.
Salman together with his wife and six children have moved in with relatives in Dohok, near the Turkish border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“At first, I hoped to come back, but now I don’t think so,” he said. “Why would I? For beautiful memories, or to witness all these misery?”
He was interrupted by Qassem Jassem, a former chef who had come over from east Mosul with his two uncles in the hopes of entering the Old City.
As he fled the district with his brother in May, he lost his four nephews. “We were running. An IS sniper shot them,” he said in a flat voice.
He and his family still hope they will be able to move back to the Old City, which lies in the western sector.
But 700,000 civilians have been displaced by the battle for Mosul, and the United Nations says some neighbourhoods including the city’s historic heart have been “almost totally destroyed”.
“Our houses have been destroyed, but we want to stay there,” said Ali Mohsen, one of Jassem’s uncles.
“We’re paying rent, and it’s expensive. How long will we stay in exile?” the father of three children asked. “Physically, we’re over there, but our entire soul is here.”
Another resident, Ahmad, said he had tried his luck at entering the Old City to recover the bodies of relatives — without success.
A week ago, when his two sisters were preparing to flee the neighbourhood at the height of the battle, their building was hit in an air strike.
“We lost one of my sisters, her husband and their son,” he said.
The 26-year-old, who joined the Hashed al-Shaabi to fight IS, wore a tight-fitting black t-shirt and had gel in his closely-cropped hair.
“There’s no future for us in Iraq,” he said. “Especially for the young.”
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