18 April 2019

What role did the West play in the destruction of Mosul?

A young girl walks hand-in-hand with her father down a street that can barely be called a street anymore. It bears more resemblance to a path winding through ruins: houses are stripped from their frames, the remains cover the streets with piles of rubble. It is all what is left of Mosul, Iraq. With hope in her eyes, she  turns to her father: 'They’ll rebuild everything', she tells him. It is not even a question. 

The Centre for Global Challenges and PAX screened on 10 April the documentary City of Two Springs (made by Frederick Mansell and Laurens Samsom). The screening was followed by a discussion led by Lauren Gould (Intimacies of Remote Warfare project) with director Frederick Mansell and PAX representatives Wilbert van der Zeijden (project coordinator Defence and Security Policies) and Saba Azeem (Civilian Protection intern). The documentary tells the story of 11-year-old Ala’, who returns to her hometown of Mosul with her family, after its liberation from Islamic State (IS). We see the family members, living in a refugee camp, prepare for their journey home and try to rebuild their lives in a city that has been reduced to rubble. Simultaneously, we see how Lise Grande, head of the humanitarian mission of the United Nations, and the Dutch ambassador Jan Waltmans are leading the logistics of the city’s reconstruction. The film offers a unique insight into the aftermath of the war against IS in Iraq. The city of Mosul acts as a dramatic scenery. As one of IS’s strongholds, the city has been heavily attacked by airstrikes carried out by the US-led international coalition. Lauren Gould underlined the importance of this documentary: 'We often do not get to see these images of the impact of war.'

Compassion and unease

The film presents the aftermath of violent conflict on both the personal and official level, leaving the viewer with simultaneous feelings of compassion and unease. On the one hand, Ala’s story is hopeful: she seems determined to make her home a good place again by rebuilding the family garden or when she meets her friends at school again. On the other hand, the story line of Lise Grande exposes the politics of reconstruction. It feels uncomfortable watching the American woman rebuild a city which had mainly been destroyed by her own country. An even more awkward moment is the scene where Lise Grande bursts out laughing, after asking a group of Iraqi who was responsible for the destruction of a building. The answer? The international coalition.

Uncomfortable facts

Surprisingly, though, the documentary pays little attention to the uncomfortable facts that Westerners are rebuilding a city that has been destroyed by the US and Europe alike in the international coalition. This did not go unnoticed by the audience: after the screening, the debate topic quickly shifted to the question of why the directors had not chosen to criticise the role of the international coalition more explicitly. According to Mansell, their goal was to capture the 'human thought' rather than the 'different actors or the political side' of the destruction of Mosul. The choice was also practical: 'When you tell a story without making use of a voice-over, you have to rely on images.' Mansell said he hopes that those who watch his documentary pick-up the incidental references to the coalition and understand the documentary within that context.

International Humanitarian Law

The documentary also raised questions about International Humanitarian Law. What is its relevance if Western countries, when liberating a city from groups like IS who commit war crimes, are commiting war crimes themselves? Van der Zeijden was quick to call this a 'worrisome' situation: 'We don’t practice what we preach. This can become a problem in the future when we want to hold other countries accountable for their war crimes.' What happened in Mosul, should be a lesson for the future.

Shouldn’t Western countries at the very least acknowledge their responsibility? Azeem explained that the opposite is the case. 'The Dutch Government did not even call Mosul a catastrophic situation.' She then added some numbers. The UK’s Royal Air Force, who contributed to the international coalition’s mission in Mosul, claimed to have killed only one civilian, against 4315 enemies. This number seems unlikely. Azeem: 'In Mosul, 75% of the targets was on buildings.' Buildings that were inhabited by civilians.

The documentary is an important first step in showing the consequences of aerial warfare and bombings in Iraq and Syria. This is important, because we have to realise the effect of our bombs. In this way, the story that is been told in City of Two Springs might become a lesson for the future. As Gould underlined after the screening: 'An image speaks a thousands words.'