Just a few short months ago, students and teachers from Mosul University—which used to be one of Iraq’s largest universities and a serious center for learning—shared a strange photo of a donkey roaming the deserted campus of the school.
The picture was a metaphor: For months, ISIS used the university campus for their own ends. The group, which took control of the city in 2014, used the hallways and classrooms to move stealthily through the city during the battle and used other buildings for administrative purposes. They also started grazing donkeys and other livestock on the university grounds—a symbol of how the extremists were trying to reinvent local culture and religion according to their own fantastical rules.
A lot has changed since then. Just three months after the fighting ended on the eastern side of Mosul, life started to return to the university, which includes teaching hospitals, science centers, museums and over 20 different schools of learning. By June, 2017 the institution’s gates were wide open for students again.
Although the signs of war are still visible on both the buildings and the faces of the students, that has not stopped an estimated 35,000 students from starting class—nearly as many students as the university had before the war.
“It makes me very happy when I see minorities—such as the Yazidis or the Christians—returning to the university. It even seems as though there are more of them now than before.”
—Professor Azzo, Mosul University
One student, Omar Habib, brings his wife to university every morning. The couple has to work hard to get there. Since all five of the bridges in Mosul were destroyed during the fighting, they have to wait in long lines to cross one of the temporary floating bridges over the Tigris river, which runs through the city.
Both Habib and his wife are studying art. “We were just fellow students in our first year but we fell in love and we had already decided to get married after we graduated,” Habib explains. “But the war didn’t allow us to complete our studies on time so we decided to get married anyway. Now we’re coming back here as husband and wife,” he says, laughing.
The fight against ISIS changed the composition of the classes that Habib and his wife attend. “There are a lot of changes,” Habib explains. Many students come to Mosul University from other provinces, which means students from different sects and religious groups are all in class together. “Sitting next to me are Christians, Yazidis and Shiites from other provinces,” he says.
One of the Shiite Muslims who has come to this Sunni-majority province is Murtada al-Zubaidi from Diyala, about 450 km away. He is studying engineering and admits he was slightly nervous when he first heard that he’d be attending university in Mosul.
“Just the idea of coming to Mosul was unthinkable before because ISIS would kill us, just for being Shiite—the same way they would kill Yazidis and Christians,” al-Zubaidi notes. “There seemed to be no life in this city. It was pronounced dead.”
Al-Zubaidi said he is only here because of the way the authorities delegate university classes. “In the beginning, I was really afraid to come,” the young man explained. “But my father contacted some friends and asked them about the situation and they said it was fine, so now I have been here for two months. All my fears are gone and things are good,” he says, as he heads into his next class. “Yes, they are good.”
About 65% of the university was destroyed, says Yunus Karim, director of communications for Mosul University. Buildings on the sprawling campus were destroyed by bombs from both U.S.-backed coalition forces fighting ISIS, and ISIS themselves. The extremists adopted a scorched earth policy as they withdrew from the city.
One of the worst affected buildings was the central library, which was almost completely burned. Today, outside that library, a Yazidi woman named Feryal Sido is handing out candy to her friends in celebration of a Yazidi religious occasion. She’s sitting with Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim students and they appear to be enjoying one another’s company.
But there is a dark undertone to this apparent peace: There is no doubt that if Sido had been home when ISIS attacked Yazidi towns in 2014, she would’ve been taken captive and sold into slavery along with thousands of other Yazidi women.
People in Mosul still lack confidence in Iraq’s social system and despite the university scene, many wonder if longterm coexistence is possible in Iraq.
Some of the teaching staff certainly believe it is. They see Mosul university as an example of that possibility.
“The diversity here makes the university a fertile environment for the cultivation of peaceful coexistence,” says Mahmoud Azzo, a professor of political science at the University of Mosul. “Universities should never reflect one specific social identity or political ideology. It makes me very happy when I see representatives of minorities—such as the Yazidis or the Christians—returning to the university. It even seems as though there are more of them now than before.”
Azzo has been putting his philosophy into action. He was one of the university lecturers who traveled to Baghdad and Najaf after ISIS was pushed out of his city. The convoy was meant to acknowledge the sacrifices of those who fought ISIS and to show that not all the people who lived in the ISIS-held city were supporters of the extremists.
Azzo has also written a series of articles and given lectures on how to encourage peaceful coexistence in Mosul. There is an increasing amount of these kinds of activities, Azzo adds. “It’s the natural consequence of a post-war period.”
There have been a number of other events, that have included conferences, art exhibitions and seminars and almost all of them have been held in, or on, ruins. Just this month, another 50 students and professors from Mosul traveled to southern Iraq to celebrate the Iraqi military’s victory over ISIS and the liberation of Mosul.