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Leftover mines, dead bodies still haunt Mosul residents years after war with ISIS

Although a punishing Iraqi and American military campaign routed ISIS from a mosque in Mosul — its "Caliphate" — in 2017, it also leveled large swathes of the city. Now, special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and videographer Adrian Hartrick look at the slow and agonizing task of rebuilding Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been seven years since the Islamic State declared its so-called caliphate from a mosque in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

    A punishing Iraqi and American military campaign routed ISIS from there in 2017, while leveling large swathes of the city.

    Now special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and videographer Adrian Hartrick look at the slow and agonizing task of rebuilding Mosul.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Centuries of history annihilated in a few short months. It was from this spot in Mosul's 12 century Al-Nuri Mosque that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the group's self-proclaimed caliphate seven years ago.

    Their reign of terror here and the fight to defeat them claimed thousands of lives and would leave the ancient city pounded into dust. Four years after the battle to retake the city, much of West Mosul remains in ruins, an unknown number of bodies beneath the rubble. Exactly how many people died in the assault here is still unclear.

    Part of the city is starting to get back on its feet, with work focused on the Old City's historic sites. The mosque complex is being rebuilt, as is the neighboring square that's home to four ancient churches, a reminder that Mosul was once famed as a safe haven of religious diversity.

    This square became famous when the pope came here to preach about renaissance amidst the ruins. But his visit also put a spotlight nearly four years after the battle for the city on how much work that there still is to be done.

    These Moslawis, working with UNESCO, the U.N. agency that works to preserve culture, are doing everything they can to restore their home to its former glory and save as much history as possible, starting with nearly 3,000 original stones gathered from the ruins of Al-Tahera Church.

    So, you're collecting what you can of the stones from the damaged church and then planning to rebuild them in as you do the reconstruction?

  • Man:

    Exactly.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    ISIS used this historic Christian complex as the headquarters of the Al-Hisbah, the religious police. The Armenian church became a jail, with prisoners put on trial by the Syriac Catholic altar for breaking their draconian laws here.

    Now those rebuilding the city hope they can bring back peaceful coexistence too. Imad El-Ahad fled before ISIS even arrived, when al-Qaida blew up his local church more than a decade ago. Now he's one of the first Christians hoping to return to the city where he was born and raised.

  • Imad Sabri Abed El-ahad, Site Supervisor, UNESCO (through translator):

    It's evident by the pope's visit that security here got better. Hopefully, Christians will no longer be persecuted.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Around the corner, the reconstructed Old City market is coming back to life, too.

    Mohammad Abou-Saad has run this coffee stand for a decade. As the souq's old stone alleys regain their buzz, he has customers again, though, with the city's economy struggling, they have little to spend.

  • Mohammad Abou-Saad, Mosul (through translator):

    The market is doing all right. It's developing bit by bit. In time, it'll be how it was. People are still penniless, so it's taking time.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    A few steps away, it's easy to see why, a jarring contrast to the shiny new souq. Much of the Old City still lies in ruins. A flurry of action in anticipation of the pope's visit saw rubble that had lined the streets for years finally swept away.

    But frustrated locals say, as soon as the papal convoy left, so did the authorities.

  • Imad Abdallah Khudra, Waiter (through translator):

    There's no reconstruction in Mosul. It's all just promises. They claim they will rebuild, and nothing.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Imad and his family fled their home in the Old City after years under ISIS rule, when his son was injured by shrapnel from a mortar during the battle. His son is too traumatized to go back to their ruined neighborhood, where they'd live amongst rubble. Imad now works 15-hour days in a pizza parlor to pay the rent on a house in East Mosul.

  • Imad Abdallah Khudra (through translator):

    I can never take my son back to that area again, or else he'd break down.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The Old City suffered some of the worst destruction in the battle to rid Mosul of ISIS. A lot of time, money, and effort was put in to level this place to the ground.

    But many who live here say the same can't be said for the efforts to rebuild it. Laith still lives amidst the battered stones and broken bodies of the community he has lived in and loved all his life.

    I ask him if all this destruction is the result of airstrikes.

  • Laith Hashem Najem Abdallah, Mosul (through translator):

    All of it due to airstrikes, mortars, and cannons, all of it.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Do you believe there are dead bodies here?

  • Laith Hashem Najem Abdallah (through translator):

    Absolutely. I unearthed a few corpses myself.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Laith and his family, as well as seven other families they took in, only survived the seven-month-long siege and assault that flattened his neighborhood thanks to the solid stones of this ancient cellar.

    They nearly starved, and they were all badly injured when rockets pounded the house. But unlike so many others here, they lived. Laith returned home three years ago, after an NGO helped him rebuild his house. He says little has changed here since then, and any work that has been done is by charities and locals, with no help from the authorities.

  • Laith Hashem Najem Abdallah (through translator):

    It's been four years since we were liberated, four years since ISIS left. And the government hasn't been here for us. We're all enraged by the government, because it's criminal, shameful.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Reconstruction is just one of the many challenges ISIS' short, but devastating occupation of Mosul has left in its wake.

    While the group may have been pushed out, they left a deadly trail behind them. The U.N. estimates it could take up to a decade to clear all the explosives ISIS planted behind them as they left.

    Wayne Lomax is an international demining expert who's been training local teams to clear leftover explosives.

    What are we looking at here in terms of the risk as time goes on?

  • Wayne Lomax, Demining Expert:

    A lot of the IEDs are getting pulled out of the ground there in places. Still have perfectly viable batteries in them.

    The one thing we know about ISIS is that they were very, very clever in their IED manufacture.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The team says this site is a pinprick in the overall land area they need to clear. It's a painstaking process. But people here, already struggling to rebuild their lives after years of fear and pain, can't wait.

    They need to return to their homes and livelihoods. Families have been maimed and killed by hidden IEDs while picking up the pieces of their destroyed houses, and at work too. Agriculture is the main form of employment in the district, and that leaves workers vulnerable moving over large open spaces perfect for hiding explosives.

    Basil knows what explosives like these can do to the human body. Three years ago, his truck drove over an IED planted by ISIS on the road to his crop fields.

  • Basil Ibrahim Khalaf, Mosul (through translator):

    I was in a complete daze. After we got to the hospital, I still didn't realize they had had to amputate my legs.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    He can't walk far on his painful prosthetic legs. Unable to work, he can't support his three young children. They survive on handouts from the community.

    Much of the area still hasn't been cleared. Knowing the danger, farmers here only go to their fields when absolutely necessary. The risk is high, but what other choice do they have?

  • (through translator):

    Yes, there is fear, because ISIS remnants are still all around and waiting to blow up any second. It's so dangerous. When you have to go to the field, you can't guarantee you will make it out alive.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    And those remnants are almost everywhere. It took the U.N. demining agency 18 months to clear hundreds of abandoned artillery and explosives just from this one site, Al Shifa Hospital, which was once the country's second most advanced.

  • Man:

    So, these are some of the explosives that we removed from here.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The explosive threat makes every aspect of reconstruction slow-going, including bringing back essential basic services like water and electricity.

  • Pehr Lodhammar, UNMAS Iraq:

    It's an enemy that will never sleep. It will continue to be there, until removed by someone.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Rebuilding has now been happening for longer than ISIS held the area, but there is so much left to do. Laith isn't sure his home can ever be what it was.

  • Laith Hashem Najem Abdallah (through translator):

    It's a horrible sight. It brings tears to your eyes. You used to open the front door and your neighbor would pop up in front of you, your brother here and your cousin there. There's no neighborhood anymore.

    We reminisce about everyone who used to sit out here on these streets.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    After so much pain, he is home, such as it is. Laith knows he will never leave again. With no help in sight, his memories will have to be enough.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Leila Molana-Allen in Mosul, Iraq.

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