Fear and treasure in the ruins of the former Isis capital Mosul.


Fear and treasure in the ruins of the former Isis capital Mosul.

The search for the hidden treasure of Isis in the ruins of Mosul, the city recaptured by the terrorist group in 2017 after a devastating nine-month siege, is the latest obstacle delaying reconstruction. Locals accuse the authorities of preventing them from rebuilding their homes on the grounds that officials suspect them of looking for cash or other valuables hidden by Isis.

“A month ago, workers removing rubble from the ruins near my house found black plastic bags full of bills,” said Khalid, a 32-year-old resident of western Mosul, where the destruction is worst. “That is why the reconstruction was temporarily stopped.” The two workers who found the cash told him that the bags were splattered with mud and burned by the fire, but the banknotes were undamaged.

Khalid says that six months earlier, $ 1.6 million (£ 1.2 million) along with gold and silver coins and bars were found by construction workers digging up a bombed house. “Money and gold coins were found in barrels and plastic bags that were buried ten feet below the ground,” he said.

During the three years that Mosul was de facto his capital, Isis withdrew large sums of money in taxes and booty from the people under his rule in western Iraq and northern Syria. Isis commanders trapped in the city during the final phase of the siege are believed to have buried gold and silver as well as cash to save it from being bombed or from being discovered by the Iraqi army. Some of those who knew the secret of their hiding place were most likely killed when the last of Isis’ fortresses were destroyed by air strikes and artillery fire before being overrun by government forces.

Whatever the origins of the treasuries, finding the caches was enough to stifle the authorities’ permission to build. Private housing applications are now being scrutinized meticulously and many are rejected.

Fears that former Isis supporters in Mosul might unearth hidden valuables is a symptom of the deep distrust that divides the Sunni Arab population of Mosul and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. There is no trust between the two, and its lack could be enough to prevent the rebuilding of Mosul, once one of the great cities of the Middle East, whose medieval mosques and markets were among the jewels of Islamic architecture. Its destruction, which reached a climax in the last months of the 2016/17 siege, corresponded in terms of the loss of culture to the bombing of Dresden by the Allied air forces in 1945.

For more than 1,000 years, Mosul was a major trading center and cosmopolitan center inhabited by Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens and other ethnic groups and sects. But the Isis terror ended that diversity, and its toxic legacy still fuels the anger that is undermining the physical, social, and political restoration of the city as it once was.

The suspicion of Isis ‘treasure is only one symptom of the divisions that were exploited and deepened during Isis’ murderous rule. Other indications of this include a furious argument over the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of al-Nouri and its sloping brick minaret known as al-Hadba or “the Hunchback,” which together have been the iconic symbols of Mosul since the 12th century. In the Nouri Mosque, Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph in 2014 after his fighters astonished the world by conquering Iraq’s second largest city from far superior forces. When Isis was on the verge of losing the mosque complex to advancing Iraqi government troops three years later, he blew it up with explosives.

The project to rebuild the Great Mosque and its minaret, which appears on the Iraqi 10,000 dinar banknote, may have been a symbol of post-IS unity for Mosul and Iraq. Instead, reconstruction has become a new point of contention as anger erupted this summer over plans for the new mosque complex. A team of Egyptian architects won a $ 50,000 Unesco competition for its design, with the United Arab Emirates paying the $ 50 million (£ 37.5 million) bill for the reconstruction contract.

But Iraqi architects were appalled to find that the new design was far from restoring Mosul’s architectural legacy, but instead provided a replacement similar to mosques in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf monarchies. Aside from the non-traditional non-Iraqi design, Unesco’s plan appeared to mimic the social differences of the Gulf by providing a special VIP area in the prayer hall for dignitaries.

In Mosul, the dispute over the new mosque and minaret has sparked both weary cynicism and anger. They believe the slow rebuilding of their city’s landmarks, as well as public buildings like the six destroyed hospitals, is explained by widespread corruption among government officials and private contractors.

“The people of Mosul see the Hadba minaret as a symbol of their heritage, culture and history,” says a local observer. “They are upset that corporations and corrupt government officials are using it as a business opportunity. They don’t care about the quality of work and the result can be shocking with a distorted minaret that is radically different from the original. ”

With such bad will, can Mosul ever be rebuilt? The Sunni Arab population is only one of Iraq’s three major communities, and the other two, Shiites and Kurds, often view people who stayed in Mosul during the so-called Caliphate as collaborators with Isis. You don’t want to do them a favor. On the other hand, corruption and government incompetence are the norm across Iraq, and the people of Mosul exaggerate their level of neglect.

Furthermore, in half of the city east of the Tigris, where the fighting was less protracted and destructive than in the west, where the Isis made its last stand, part of Mosul was being rebuilt, mostly by housekeepers and private companies.

“Life in the east is much better than in the west and in the old town,” says one resident. “Electricity is a little better, about five hours a day. Schools and the university have been rebuilt and are open along with new shops, cafes and even beauty salons. ”Many people from the historic heart of Mosul and the old town have now moved east or live on the outskirts.

But the most important and vivid features of life in Mosul have disappeared – and may never return. Even in the more recent pre-Isis past, the city was inhabited by a mixture of peoples and you could see Kurds in their traditional baggy pants, Christians visiting its ancient churches, Sunnis in its iconic mosques, and Yazidis, Turkmens and Shiites.

There was often friction between the communities, but they managed to coexist. Isis put an end to all of this: Christians and Shiites fled, Yazidis were murdered and raped, and many Turkmens joined Isis. Kurds were once a significant part of the population, but Ahmad, a Kurd who has permanently moved to the Kurdish capital Irbil, said: “There are no Kurds in Mosul now. From my neighborhood, which consisted of 200 families (around 1,000 people), there are now three families, most of the others are leaving in 2014. “

He added that the surviving Yazidis also left and joined Shiite militias “to take revenge on Sunnis who supported Daesh (Isis).” Such community hatred is unlikely to subside, but until then, Mosul will never really be restored.

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