Iraqi forces gained control of the University of Mosul from the Islamic State group on January 18. However, the buildings were so seriously damaged during the fighting that they are unfit for use and hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed when the library caught fire. In the past weeks, students and teachers from the university have started rebuilding the campus themselves, determined to finish it in time for classes to start next September.
The Iraqi army gained control of all of eastern Mosul (the area where the university is located) on January 18, 2017. The Islamic State group still controls the part of the city that lies to the west of the Tigris River, meaning that the banks of this ancient river have, in recent months, transformed into the frontline.
The University of Mosul is one of the largest and most reputed universities in Iraq. It has 22 different departments, seven research centres, a hospital complex, several museums and a large library. Until war came to Mosul, its yearly enrollment was 30,000 students. However, IS jihadists shut down the university when they took over Mosul in June 2014. They soon started to use the campus as one of their main bases in the city.
Today, despite the fact that mortar fire continues to fall on the zone, students want classes to start back up as soon as possible.
“One student was killed by a mine hidden in a rubbish bin”
We started this campaign a month ago, but we’ve had to stop on several occasions when the mortar fire from the jihadists got too intense.
So far, we’ve been able to clean up several buildings, including those that house the law, science and chemistry departments. More than 100 buildings were damaged by bombing from the coalition. Our main aim has been to clear up the rubble in these buildings. While most of the furniture remained intact, the university still doesn’t have running water or electricity.
There is a lot of energy and excitement surrounding this campaign. More than 400 volunteers have been working in shifts on different departments. There’s a great atmosphere, except that people are still a little on edge because tragedy could strike at any moment.
On April 6, 2017, a mine hidden in a rubbish bin exploded while a group of students were cleaning up classrooms in the architecture department. One student died and three others were wounded. A few days earlier, a mason who was repairing a wall on campus was struck by mortar fire and died.
However, even incidents like that haven’t dissuaded us. We remain steadfast — we have to because we are hoping that the university will be ready for classes to start again in September. We're also hoping that the students who fled and studied at other universities in Iraq when Mosul was under IS control will come back.
500,000 books went up in smoke
I launched this campaign during a book fair in Baghdad. I made a display showing before and after photos of the Mosul Library and I showed it to publishers, asking them to donate books. Many accepted — one editor even donated 18 boxes, each of which contained 500 books, ranging from novels to scientific reviews.
The family of a university professor, who died recently, agreed to donate his library to the university. He owned more than 350 books, including dissertations written by scholars in diverse disciplines, from maths and psychology to science and education.
For the time being, there is no official university body ready to accept these books, so, for safekeeping, I gave them to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an NGO dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free media. The NGO will hand these books over to the university as soon as it is rebuilt and a new director has been named.