Ten Iraqi universities closed their doors as the Islamic State seized swaths of northwestern Iraq three years ago. Their campuses became battlefields. Bombs and mortar shells destroyed many of their buildings.
But as the Iraqi-led coalition now reclaims territory from the Islamic State, some of those institutions are showing signs of recovery. Teachers and students volunteer or raise money to reconstruct their campuses and even resume their studies, while government officials prepare Iraqi higher education for the post-Islamic-State era.
These efforts gained momentum in January, when Iraqi forces liberated the main campus of Mosul University, which was considered one of Iraq’s best institutions of higher education before it fell into Islamic-State hands.
Late last month, as west Mosul finally fell to government forces, the minister of higher education, Abdul Razzaq al-Issa, announced new committees that will assess the damage at universities in liberated governorates and develop a rebuilding plan.
“We would like to thank our military forces and the popular mobilization forces for bringing back Iraq’s dignity, liberating the land, people and the holy sites of science, particularly the University of Mosul,” he said at a press conference.
Outside of Mosul, other Iraqi universities have had more time to rebound from the Islamic State’s rule. Tikrit University was among the first universities to be liberated, in April of 2015. It served as an Iraqi military base for five months before studies resumed, as government forces steadily pushed into ISIS territory.
“The rebuilding process started rapidly after the liberation,” said Maytham Ali Ubad, chairman of Tikrit’s media and public relations department and an Arabic literature professor. “That included restoring the burned buildings, the gardens and equipping the labs.”
Fighting between the militants and Iraqi government forces had demolished the business school, dormitories, and about 70 percent of Tikrit’s science laboratories and other facilities, Ubad said.
The university, United Nations agencies and the Tikrit Voluntary Youth Council, a local non-governmental organization, raised funds and found workers to rebuild over the course of a year, said Mustafa Muthana, a member of the council.
“We cleaned the classrooms and opened the barracks on the outer gates so students could resume their studies,” said Muthana, adding that 24,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff could now return to their work and their studies. “The feelings were indescribable.”
The costs of reconstruction, which amounted to about $3.4 million, were lower than they otherwise would have been, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, said Ubad. Anbar University in Ramadi, in western Iraq, was liberated later in 2015. It was also used as a military base until September of 2016.
Reconstructing the school cost $253 million, according to Abdulrahman al-Fahdawi, the chair of the university’s media and public relations department. “The concentration of ISIS members in the university buildings during the battles caused massive damage to about 30 percent of its buildings,” said al-Fahdawi.
“ISIS members also looted the labs and carried the equipment to unknown locations.” Mustafa Khazaal, a fourth-year education and psychology student at Anbar University, remembered the first time he saw his university after the liberation. “I found the campus looking as if it had been hit by an earthquake,” said Khazaal.
“There was nothing but complete destruction, with no hope of resuming life there. The buildings were demolished, the central club burned, and American guards prevented us from entering our faculty.” He and other students who have returned to Anbar needed to watch out for landmines.
“We were wandering around unaware if the place is safe or not,” said Khazaal. “Two weeks after resuming studies, the Americans asked us to leave because the department was not safe enough. The gardens were not safe, and they found a weapon shelter under the outer wall.”
Anbar’s computer center remains half destroyed, and the faculty of arts building is burned. Arts students now meet in a former administration building. The education faculty has been repaired, but its students still only use it four days a week, so that students from other departments who do not have functioning buildings can also use the space.
The president’s office has moved to the education faculty building, too. Mohammed Hamid, a second-year law student at Anbar University who lost an academic year before resuming his studies in Kirkuk, was optimistic even though his university is still half-destroyed. “The damage was so extensive at the beginning. Now it is better,” said Hamid.
“But there is no restoration of the demolished buildings, only cleaning, lifting of the rubble and removing the mines.” The law school is largely rebuilt. But if all the other former students returned next year, the university would not have seats for them. “If they come back, as it is planned for the next academic year, the available buildings would not be enough,” Khazaal said.
“I feel so sad. It was like a paradise: trees, gardens and sweet memories.” In Mosul, the recently liberated Mosul University’s College of Medicine is struggling to open its doors. Faculty members in other departments are also waiting to see when they might be able to get back to work.
“We need to restore electricity and water,” said Ali Al-Baroodi, a lecturer in Mosul University’s translation department who said he hasn’t received a salary in two years. “Currently the cadres are working on this.”
The rest of the university lies largely in rubble. In an April press statement, Mosul University President Obay al-Dewachi acknowledged that grassroots efforts were crucial to reconstruction. “There are buildings that were not damaged too much and are returning to life due to the efforts of the university professors and humanitarian organizations,” he said.
Aws Ibrahim, 22, a Mosul geology student, said he needed to contribute because he wanted to graduate with a degree someday. Becoming a geologist would be his way of proving the failure of the Islamic State, he said. “We formed a group of volunteers,” said Ibrahim.
“Recently the engineering cadres started to repair the electric and water supplies. We worked—both students and professors—with tools to restore and clean our department.”
(Ten universities in three governorates have been under Islamic-State control. In Anbar, they were the Universities of Al-Anbar, Fallujah and Al-Maarif. In Tikrit, they were the Universities of Tikrit, Samarra and in Nineveh, the Universities of Nineveh, Mosul, Hamdaniyah, Tel Afer and Northern Technical.)
by Gilgamesh Nabeel