In Post-ISIS Iraq, Volunteering Can Quickly Become An Act Of Rebellion

17 hours ago
Originally published on April 17, 2019 8:13 am

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Something surprising unfolded in the Iraqi city of Mosul after a battle to force out ISIS a couple of years ago. Volunteers started doing the work that the government was not doing. This was new for Iraq, with its history of top-down leadership and corruption. In one case, a nurse took on an especially critical task and ended up in a confrontation with the most powerful man in town.

NPR's Jane Arraf has the story.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: There's been a youth movement building in Mosul since ISIS was driven out. It's a subject of this TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

JAAFAR ABDUL KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: It's called "Shabab Talk" on Deutsche Welle's Arabic-language channel, filmed in Mosul a year after the battle. The topic - what it's like for young people after ISIS. A group sits around a makeshift table near the ruins of a destroyed building at the University of Mosul campus. The camera pans from a young woman to an imposing older man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Curly haired handsome host Jaafar Abdul Karim introduces the young woman, Suroor al-Husseini...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: ...And Governor Nawfal al-Akoub, in charge of this province of 3 million. A bit about Husseini - she was a nurse who lived in Mosul for the three years that ISIS controlled the city. Thousands of civilians were killed in the battle between ISIS and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Husseini's sister, 14 years old, was one of them.

Husseini decided to volunteer with Iraqi special forces medics on the frontlines of the fiercest part of the battle in Mosul's historic Old City. Not the usual thing for a young woman from Mosul.

SUROOR AL-HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) In my opinion, the best revenge against ISIS is to be humane.

ARRAF: When Husseini went back to look at the old city after the fighting was over, she was shocked to see bodies just lying in the rubble decomposing. A lot of them were ISIS fighters and their families. Months later, the bodies were still there. Husseini worried they would contaminate the water supply and that seeing corpses everywhere would affect children.

AL-HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) The children can become affected at a young age and become aggressive just from seeing these bodies everywhere.

ARRAF: She went to officials, but they were clearly overwhelmed. So she gathered a group of volunteers, and she removed almost a thousand bodies so the municipality could take them away. And she defused suicide explosive belts on some of the corpses.

She tells us that when she was invited to appear on TV on "Shabab Talk," she assumed the government appreciated her efforts.

AL-HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Honestly, when I first heard that they wanted to hear my story, I thought that they were going to thank me or give me a certificate of appreciation because I helped solve a crisis in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

NAWFAL AL-AKOUB: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Abdul Karim, the host, says he's gone with the Husseini to pick up bodies. And he asks the governor what he's going to do about them. The governor says, there are no bodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

AL-AKOUB: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Husseini realizes she's not getting a certificate of appreciation. This demure-looking woman in a red flowered headscarf sits there like a coiled spring, and she says this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

AL-HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Sir, I have been moving bodies for six months. Our team is 30 people. So for six months, 30 people are going in and out every single day, and you didn't even know we were there. It's bad management on your side.

(APPLAUSE)

ARRAF: You hear that audience applauding? It was mostly young people, a lot of them volunteers. Husseini had tapped into widespread anger, that after all they'd been through and all they'd lost, the government wasn't doing anything to rebuild the Old City. The governor is furious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

AL-AKOUB: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says if he'd seen Husseini there, he would have thrown her in jail. He bans her from doing volunteer work in Mosul. Husseini could be criticized for one thing - in moving bodies without documenting them, she might have erased evidence of war crimes. The fact is there was no one else picking up those bodies. And she was part of a movement in Mosul that couldn't be so easily shut down.

Hundreds of young volunteers were repairing homes, schools, even the water network. It wasn't a political movement. They didn't want to overthrow the government. But by doing the government's work, they were embarrassing it just the same. I go to see the governor a few months later. He's a gruff man with a shaved head, a former soccer player.

AL-AKOUB: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He tells me he's ordered the military to investigate Husseini and issued an arrest warrant for her.

AL-AKOUB: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says he needs to approve everything going on in the city. On the phone, he tells a caller that all U.N. contracts have to go through him. When I mentioned him that we've just seen bodies still lying around the Old City, he picks up the phone, and he makes this threat against the official in charge.

AL-AKOUB: (Through interpreter) They must be gone morning. Otherwise, he'll be digging his own grave.

ARRAF: Meanwhile, Husseini took her volunteer efforts, teaching first aid, to other provinces. And the governor, who had the backing of powerful tribes, seemed to be untouchable - despite widespread allegations of corruption, despite the lack of rebuilding in the Old City - until a beautiful spring day a few weeks ago, on a national holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: A boat that had no safety equipment sank near an amusement park in the Tigris River. More than 100 people drowned, most of them women and children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: When the governor came to the site, he was met by protesters demanding he step down. The scene was recorded by a university instructor, one of the local volunteers, Ali al-Baroodi (ph). In most of Iraq's recent history, it's been either dangerous or pointless to protest. After ISIS and war and corrupt politicians, these young people though had had enough. They started throwing bottles and bricks. The governor's driver fled, and Akoub got in his luxury SUV, and he sped away.

After that, Parliament removed him. And the prime minister ordered him and other officials arrested for alleged corruption. Mosul now is run by temporary administration that includes army General Najm al-Jabouri, the same man the governor had asked to investigate Husseini. Jabouri told us he respects her and the whole volunteer movement.

NAJM AL-JABOURI: They help the people. They clean the roads. I told the governor, we need the youth effort to help the people - to give them hope.

ARRAF: Husseini, freed from the governor's threats, has started volunteering in Mosul again, teaching first aid. And other volunteer groups organized a campaign to clean up the streets. This time, government officials joined them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

INSKEEP: That story is from our podcast Rough Translation, which has a new season on rebels around the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.