The visit marked Jolie’s 61st mission – and her fifth visit to Iraq – with the UN Refugee Agency since 2001. She arrived in the city on the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Jolie walked among the bombed-out buildings that line the narrow streets of the Old City and met displaced families to discuss efforts to rebuild the city and the needs of the returning population.
West Mosul was held captive by ISIS for three years. The combat operation to re-take the city was the largest and longest urban battle since World War II, and the wreckage reminiscent of Dresden. Civilians faced aerial bombardment, artillery barrage, cross-fire, snipers, and unexploded ordnance. Hundreds of thousands of people were subjected to siege-like conditions, used as human shields or targeted as they fled the city. Large swathes of West Mosul were flattened. Many residents are now slowly returning, to scenes of complete destruction. Like residents of other former ISIS strongholds, they have suffered nearly unprecedented levels of psychological trauma.
UNHCR is helping many returning families, with programs including cash assistance to rebuild their homes, legal representation for family members who have been arbitrarily detained because of mistaken identity, and help to obtain essential legal documents that were confiscated, destroyed or denied during the occupation.
Speaking in front of the ruins of al-Nuri Mosque, Special Envoy Angelina Jolie said:
“This is the worst devastation I have seen in all my years working with UNHCR. People here have lost everything: their homes are destroyed. They are destitute. They have no medicine for their children, and many have no running water or basic services. They are still surrounded by bodies in the rubble. After the unimaginable trauma of the occupation, they are now trying to rebuild their homes, often with little or no assistance.
“I have no words for the strength it must take to rebuild after loss like this. But that is what the people of this city are doing. They are grief-stricken and traumatized, but they are also hopeful. They are clearing their homes with their own hands, and volunteering and helping each other. But they need our assistance.
“We often tend to assume, as an international community, that when the fighting is over, the work is done. But the conditions I observed here in West Mosul are appalling. Displacement is still happening. The camps near the city are still full. Whole areas of West Mosul remain flattened. Enabling people to return and stabilizing the city is essential for the future stability of Iraq and the region.
“I recognize the great sacrifices made in the liberation of Mosul. I hope there will be a continued commitment to rebuilding and stabilizing the whole of the city. And I call on the international community not to forget Mosul, and not to turn their attention away from its people. We have learnt in Iraq before and elsewhere in the region the dangers of leaving a void. It is also what the families and survivors deserve.
“I met parents whose 17-year-old daughter lost her legs in a mortar-strike. When they carried her to get medical treatment they were turned away, and she bled to death.
“Every man I met talked about the lashes and punishments inflicted by the extremists. The girls I met talked about the years of not being able to go to school, and of seeing people killed, and of feeling too afraid to leave their houses. It is deeply upsetting that people who have endured unparalleled brutality have so little as they try, somehow, to rebuild the lives they once had.”