What does that transitional moment – between the end of a conflict and a return to ‘normal’ life – look like? These images are part an ongoing project on the aftermath of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, exploring the legacy of conflicts that is constantly reshaping the demographics, society, and livelihoods of the people enduring seemingly endless war. It is necessary to explore, and question, how the seeds of future discord – perhaps another war – are sown, and equally necessary to document those who are trying to get by, no matter how harsh the present.
Both Mosul and Raqqa were the capitals of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, from 2014 until 2017, when the extremist group, who ruled with a murderous regime headed by Abubakr Al Baghdadi, was finally ousted from Raqqa, Syria.
A trail of thousands of civilian casualties - either killed by ISIS or by coalition airstrikes - unexploded ordinance, mass graves, and mass destruction of urban areas resulted, and the humanitarian fallout catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced either within their own country or exiled from it.
The war against ISIS was a symptom of a much larger, and longer historical context in which sectarian divides were blown wide open - starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. While conflict has consumed both countries for different reasons, the outcomes are often the same: civilians bear the brunt of the burden.
With little foreign aid to help both cities rebuild, the civilians have taken it upon themselves either to govern and bring back public works programs (water, electricity, education), or find the money to reopen their shops to earn a living again. In Mosul, just months after it was declared liberated from ISIS by the Iraqi government, daily life seemed to have sprung right back in markets and homes amidst a moonscape of rubble and dust. Children, and women without the mandatory niqabs enforced by ISIS, frequented the theme park by the Tigris River, men played football or went to cafes to smoke, or play snooker in an arcade. All such activities like this were banned and punishable by death under ISIS.
On the other side of the river, in the old city of Mosul, civilians went to their destroyed homes and searched through the rubble for loved ones, or whatever belongings they could salvage. The same scenes unfolded in Raqqa, and yet beneath the drive to continue on, a stoicism and discontent remains of those who have lost everything: if rebuilding does not happen quickly, if people cannot find jobs or a shelter over their heads, much worse may be ahead.
Sheikh Abu Osama Qawsiyet, left, is surrounded by other Sunni tribal leaders gathered for a meeting in a village of northern Mosul, Iraq. November 2017. The question over the future of Mosul and Sunni areas within Iraq, a Shia dominated country, rests heavily on the ability of the Sunni tribes and the the Iraqi central government in managing their relationship. When ISIS took over parts of western and northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, many Sunnis initially sympathized with the extremist group as they offered what the Shia Iraqi government could not, and their conditions were exacerbated by years of drought and discrimination in both the government and armed forces. For years, since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the Sunnis have felt marginalized in their own country not only because of the policies of the government, but also because of, and especially, the encroachment of the Kurds on their territories and rights. "When we gather, we discuss the crisis that we are in, and the problems we face. We've been here for a long time, as tribal leaders and the sons of tribal leaders," starts Sheikh Abu Osama Qawsiyet, of the Hadidi tribe. He continues, discussing the problems the Sunnis are facing with the Kurds, who are In the Nineveh Plain, the Kurds have forced Sunni Arabs to leave their villages because they have big media - the same as the Shia - but the Sunnis don't. Our suffering is caused by both sides." "The Sunni cities have gone from invasion to invasion. First it was the Americans. Then it was the Shia [government], then ISIS, and now the [Kurdish] Peshmerga," said Sheikh Qawsiyet. "All we want from the government is to enable us to see our future. We just need the villages, destroyed by the Peshmerga, to be rebuilt and to bring stability to the people who have been displaced." "The Sunnis have no authority in the security forces, and it's only a 'compliment' that some Sunnis are there. It's just to say that we are a part of
Civilians use barges to transport their cars, crops, and other goods across the Euphrates River as seen in Raqqa, Syria. Many of the main bridges in the center of Raqqa that previously connected the northern and southern halves of the city were destroyed in coalition airstrikes. June 2018. Eight months after ISIS was ousted from their capital, civilians are returning to rebuild their lives and homes. Without a visible presence of NGOs or strong support from the coalition because of ongoing security concerns, the city’s residents and civil council and municipality have taken it upon themselves to clean up the rubble and reopen stores in time for Ramadan. An estimated half of the 400,000 civilians - the number of people who were in the city before coalition airstrikes began last June — have returned to a city devastated by airstrikes, street battles, and unexploded ordinance, including mines and booby traps left behind by the extremist militias. Infrastructure like bridges connecting the northern and southern parts of the city have been destroyed, forcing people to use flimsy barges to transport their vehicles, crops, and other goods to the city center. Late rains this year have also compounded the city’s woes as it relies heavily on agriculture. Bodies also remain under the rubble, worsening fears that disease could easily break out as the weather becomes warmer.
Men sit in a tea house smoking and playing dominoes in east Mosul, Iraq. The tea house remained open during ISIS's rule over the city from 2014, but no board games, dominoes, or any other entertainment was allowed. The owner of the cafe, Tamer Suleiman, says he could only serve tea. Smoking of cigarettes and shisha - the water pipe so ubiquitous throughout the Middle East - was also banned by the extremist group. The cafe now has all of this back, including dominoes, backgammon, a television, and shisha. November 2017. "Under ISIS, most people didn't leave their houses to come here - even to drink tea - because the Hisbah (ISIS morality police) searched for people who didn't grow beards or who weren't wearing appropriate clothes according to their rules," said Tamer Suleiman, the owner of the cafe who has kept it running for seven years. "Whenever people heard that the Hisbah were coming, the tea house would immediately clear out. Most days, business was already slow. When they [the Hisbah] came, no one was here." The morality police would frequently search Suleiman's shop to see if there were cigarette butts left over and to make sure they didn't smell anything resembling cigarette smoke. "One guy threatened to imprison me if he found anything," Suleiman recounted. "After liberation, I was reborn into this new situation we have now. There is nothing more we want than just living like any human being and being able to practice our daily lives," he said.
Actors joke with each other while discussing how to wear a woman's abaya (full body covering common in Iraq), before the start of their show depicting the life of Hammurabi in Mosul, Iraq. Hammurabi was the Babylonian king who reigned in the 1700s B.C., and established the Hammurabi Code, one of the earliest known written codes of law. November 2017. The cast of actors, under the direction of Rafit Al-Sunayd, have shown four plays, open to the public, since the end of the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS, in July 2017. The two shown at the beginning were mockeries of ISIS, and almost all of the actors were students at the College of Fine Arts at Mosul University. ISIS expelled all the students at the college when they took over, and destroyed their department. "We made these plays about ISIS so soon after liberation because I was jailed by them for 72 days. We lived it, and therefore we felt it needed to be expressed," said actor Omar Akram. He continued: "We aren't from any production company, but we all have degrees in acting, so we gathered our own resources to bring joy and critical thinking about politics." "Hammurabi was an iconic character in our forgotten ancient land," said Akram. "Stories like this need to be seen, and we also need to attract tourists to come and see what our society is like. We can't just depend on oil." The director, Al-Sunayd, decided that depicting Hammurabi was right for the time. "It's about how he put laws in place to make sure everyone had their own rights. We transitioned from old times to now, and to see how things have changed in regards to freedom of speech, and other rights, is important," he said. The auditorium where the play is shown was donated as it was the only one which survived the war. It was previously used for weddings. Al-Sunayd continued: "As for peace, you can't do anything without peace. You can't sleep, eat, walk to the end of the street. Peace is our language."