Mosul was once a beautiful city. Today, piles of rubble are everywhere. Buildings are completely demolished; cars are riddled with bullet holes. Despite all the ruin and destruction, life in Mosul continues. But Christians, as much as possible, are trying to keep their distance.
The city is the epicenter of Iraq's Nineveh Governorate, a region where most of the country's Christians have dwelled for centuries. Christians, however, have long regarded Mosul as dangerous. Their exodus began long before the Islamic State (ISIS) made Mosul its headquarters in Iraq. The city remained under the militant control from 2014 until its liberation in 2017. Yet today, Mosul's Christians continue to make it clear that their exodus from Mosul is complete. For them, there is no return.
"ISIS's capture of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains was more than just an occupation for Christians," Father Albert, a Catholic priest in Baghdad, explained to ICC immediately after the liberation of Mosul. "It's related to trust. ISIS broke the community and Christians will not be able to mix within the general community anymore."
"Half of the civilians in Mosul joined ISIS," Father Albert continued. "Christians saw many movies on social media of how civilians welcomed ISIS in June 2014. How can they trust those people anymore?"
"The mindset [about] ISIS is that it was not something born in 2014," said Samer, a Christian from Mosul. "It was kind of like a result of a mindset that existed in Mosul."
He added, "[Local] Christians say that their neighbors took everything from their houses. ISIS took the big things, the big establishment. But the Muslim neighbors took and stole the Christian houses. These wounds are not going to heal in the Christian community."
Other parts of the Nineveh Plains have seen the slow, cautious return of Christians back to their homes. But Mosul tells a very different story. Before ISIS, several thousand Christians lived in the city. Today, less than a hundred have returned. A lack of community trust combined with absent security and a thoroughly ruined city is too much for many.
Even while many Christians from Mosul will not permanently return, it is common for them to make frequent trips to the city. Though destroyed, Mosul remains the administrative capitol of the governorate. Whether Christians want to or not, the daily workings of life often require trips to the city.
Nadia is a 22-year-old Christian who was raised in Mosul. She refuses to return, but like many, regularly travels to the city. She said, "Mosul will never go back as it was; we are ready all the time to flee. The city looks pale."
Although she would prefer not to travel to Mosul, she wants a university degree. "That is the sacrifice, going to Mosul. Kurdistan didn't offer us anything, still the private college is available and need a lot of money," she explained. For this reason, she braves not only the dangers of Mosul itself but also the possibility of harassment at rival militia checkpoints surrounding the city. "Checkpoints are good with us unless there are Arabs with us at Kurdish check points, and vice versa."
Despite these challenges, Nadia has determined that ISIS would not take her education from her as they did her city. "The level of education is too low at Mosul university, because we attend only three days a week. At the end, everyone looks for the certificate, that's the most important thing."
Akram is another Christian from Mosul who refuses to live there, but travels to the city in order to maintain employment. When he looks at the city he once called home, all he sees is sadness and painful memories. "We as Christians don't have a future in Iraq," he said.
He is particularly concerned about West Mosul. The intense destruction that this city experienced hides the ISIS militants who remain there, threatening the security of the rest of the city and governorate.
"I think West Mosul [has] two concerning points. First is the destruction; second is security," explained Akram. "The government doesn't admit that ISIS is still there... Following up the victory [announcement], nothing has happened. It was supposed to have new development system after the military success. Unfortunately, none of that has happened."
Dave Eubank, a Free Burma Ranger who participated in the liberation of Mosul, shared with ICC how security and development are intertwined in Mosul. He said, "Even as people slowly try to move back in and rebuild in some parts of the west, ISIS sleeper cells launch intermittent attacks and rival militias raise tensions."
Without a doubt, the situation in Mosul has improved. It's no longer run by ISIS. But the wounds that ISIS left behind run deep. Without security or reconstruction, Christians simply aren't taking the risk to make Mosul their home again.