As a child, Osama al Abdullah would sit and listen to his uncle's stories about the University of Mosul where he was a gardener. But Osama's dream to study there – and life as he knew it – was shattered after Daesh took over the city.

Students at University of Mosul on January 21, 2018 in Mosul, Iraq after Iraqi forces and the coalition cleansed the city from Daesh.
Students at University of Mosul on January 21, 2018 in Mosul, Iraq after Iraqi forces and the coalition cleansed the city from Daesh. (AA)

Beginnings...

As they say, there’s a beginning to each dream. 

Growing up in those narrow alleys lined with ancient stone houses which the city of Mosul was so famous for, I would often sit in my father’s shop after school. We had a neighbour I called "Uncle Yunus" who was a gardener at University of Mosul. He used to visit us almost every day and tell my father about life inside university, about its corridors, its gardens, the elegance of its students, and the cultural events there. It piqued my curiosity then and ever since I’ve felt a connection, an affinity with that university. 

I dreamt of going with Uncle Yunus to the university, of living the life of a student, of seeing what they saw. 

Days became years and I completed by my secondary education at one of the oldest institutes of Mosul, Al Sharqiya school. Most of Mosul’s thinkers, politicians and scientists of competence had graduated from Al Sharqiya. 

Despite some financial difficulties, my father was there at each step, helping me reach my dream university.

One autumn night in 2010, I got a message from one of my friends who had spotted my name on one of the central admission lists. I had been accepted at the University of Mosul’s law faculty. 

It was an unforgettable moment. I don’t know what happened to me that night, it was madness, I was walking the streets without knowing where I was going. 

But my feet took me straight to my father’s shop, tears of happiness streaming down my face. 

“Abi (my dad), do you remember what I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid? My dreams will come true.” 

Daesh sold all the books and scientific resources in the Central Library of University of Mosul (pictured here before the terror group's invasion). The library housed hundreds of books, maps and important manuscripts, which Daesh said would corrupt people.
Daesh sold all the books and scientific resources in the Central Library of University of Mosul (pictured here before the terror group's invasion). The library housed hundreds of books, maps and important manuscripts, which Daesh said would corrupt people. (Osama al Abdullah / TRTWorld)

University life

It was a sunny morning. I hopped on a rickety bus from Al Farouk, staring out at the banks of the Tigris which connects the two halves of Mosul until I reached my new world – the University of Mosul. 

I was 19, and I had arrived in a world of intellectual and cultural pluralism. Different nationalities and cultures, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians. The poor and the rich, the son from the village and the son from the city. 

As I completed my orientation, I realised I had arrived –  a real law student who would become a lawyer and defend human rights one day. It felt like a dream; was I really a student at Mosul university?

University life was great. I immersed myself in the study of human rights, international humanitarian law and the history of political systems –  these subjects were the centre of my formative years. 

And then there were my friends. We would meet between lectures at the cafeteria. Something funny that happened on the bus, serious discussions, daily anecdotes, anything that made us laugh would bring us together for a cup of tea. Indeed, I had a great group of friends. 

At the end of the day, I used to go to the Central Library. It became a routine with my colleague and my friend Joseph Nabil, a Christian from Mosul studying political science. 

I would be surrounded by books, maps, manuscripts, research –  whatever a student might need. I could dive into an ocean of books and would often lose track of time. The librarian would tell me time was up and I would have to leave the library, always wishing I could stay on.

A general view of University of Mosul Central Library around a month after the city's liberation from Daesh on August 5, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared victory over Daesh in Mosul on July 10.
A general view of University of Mosul Central Library around a month after the city's liberation from Daesh on August 5, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared victory over Daesh in Mosul on July 10. (Getty Images)

Dark clouds... 

After a quiet night like most days then, I woke up early at dawn on June 8, 2014 to go over my lessons, as usual, before university. 

After a few moments, I heard blasts and the sounds of battle. I felt like I was at a war front, not in Mosul, the city of peace and coexistence. 

I stayed home with my family as things kept escalating. There were armed groups advancing towards the city. I was living in the eastern fold and clashes in our neighbourhood were close to our house. 

On the tenth of June, after two days of clashes between the federal police and what looked like armed militias, I called my colleague Muhammad Hadad who lived on the western side of Mosul where the battle had not yet reached.

He said security forces, the Iraqi army and operations command centre had all withdrawn from the city almost completely. I could not believe what Muhammad told me. 

Was it possible security forces which commandeer such large numbers had left the fate of the city and its citizens in the hands of hundreds of armed individuals who appeared out of nowhere? The only thing we knew was that the groups had crossed the Syrian-Iraqi borders. 

I decided to leave my house and go to one of the streets in the old city to see what was happening. I saw cars packed with people raising black flags and opening fire in the air to celebrate their “victory.”

Their features suggested the armed men were from different countries, including Iraqis. I saw many Caucasians, North Africans and Europeans from Germany, France and the UK. 

I felt I was in another world. How and what was happening – was I even in Mosul?

Eventually, I surrendered to the facts. I learnt the men were Daesh fighters. I realised later we were entering a dark tunnel.     

Staff gathers books and documents which survived Daesh and bombardment at University of Mosul's Central Library ahead of a month anniversary of the city's liberation from Daesh on August 5, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq.
Staff gathers books and documents which survived Daesh and bombardment at University of Mosul's Central Library ahead of a month anniversary of the city's liberation from Daesh on August 5, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images / Getty Images)

University education under Daesh control

When Daesh first entered Mosul, students were in the midst of their finals. But the exams were halted, that was in June 2014. Two months later, the Iraqi government offered two alternative sites for university students to complete their final exams – in Dahuk and in Kirkuk. 

After Daesh took over the city, they issued an order forbidding students from finishing their exams. Threatening to kill them, Daesh declared that those students who went to Dahuk or Kirkuk for their finals would be considered apostates who went to the lands of infidels. But some students persisted and fled under the cover of night to complete their education outside Mosul but they could never return to their city and their families.

That summer, Daesh set up the pillars of their new state. 

By 2015, they announced the office of education which would be run by an Egyptian man with German citizenship. Zulkarnain was one of the most dangerous idealogues and organisers of Daesh. 

He shut down the faculties of law, fine arts, political sciences, media, archaeology, management, economics, literature, philosophy, and sociology; and several colleges and institutes. Only Islamic studies, medicine, and pharmacology remained. 

They imposed gender segregation at educational institutes, and made the niqab and black clothes mandatory for female students; the face veil was also mandatory for girls as young as 10 in primary schools. Children had to be sent to Daesh’s military training centres.

It didn’t stop there; Zulkarnain issued an “arrest warrant” for law faculty teachers for teaching laws made by humans which went against what the Daesh believed. 

Many lecturers left Mosul for cities where teaching was still an option. At the time I couldn’t find out the fate of those who remained in Mosul because fear was the language on the streets. It turns out a few of them went underground to stay under the radar. 

I tried to get in touch with Joseph Nabil and a few friends who left the city but I couldn’t reach them.

I eventually stopped going to university; I think I, along with thousands of other students, was in shock over the changing cultural identity of Mosul.

Only a few students continued. Some were going to the university out of fear; some out of obligation to the new masters of Mosul. Others were the children or relatives of members of Daesh or their supporters who wanted to show to the outside world that life was normal in the city controlled by the armed group.

I was so close to realising my dreams – in my penultimate year – when the Daesh invaded Mosul. I stayed home for months, only to occasionally look for some work.

The University of Mosul was in its worst phase in history. 

An Iraqi man walks outside University of Mosul on January 22, 2017, a week after Iraqi counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook it from Daesh.
An Iraqi man walks outside University of Mosul on January 22, 2017, a week after Iraqi counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook it from Daesh. (John Salangsang/Invision / Getty Images)

Daesh ideology was on display everywhere in the city; they had set up media points consisting of big screens streaming their militant operations, religious speeches and Daesh beheadings and hangings. 

The University of Mosul was one of Daesh’s major media centres with screens inside halls, social centres and other places, the violence on display was a message to who opposed them. 

Daesh used videos with special effects and dramatic editing to brainwash the residents, especially the youth of the city.

I was working in a bakery in Al Majmua Al Thaqafi Ayah, the intellectual hub across the campus, when one morning the coalition forces carried out an air raid on a building in the University of Mosul. It contained very important documents and archives. With that strike, I watched my dreams slowly collapse.

Daesh ended up selling all the books and scientific resources in the central library, which housed hundreds of books, maps and important manuscripts, claiming the documents were against its ideology and would corrupt the people. They sold them cheaply to people who were not even aware of the importance of those books, people who were burning books for fuel as other energy sources ran out in the city. 

Daesh made sure they didn’t sell these books to young people because they might save those valuable books for the next generation. For months, Daesh kept on burning books. Until one day they burnt what was left inside the central library completely. 

The news was very painful for some of us, I started crying when I saw smoke billowing from the library. What a great loss! I was reminded of Hulagu Khan’s siege of Baghdad when all the books in the Grand Library were destroyed. History revisited us, with a new face. It’s impossible to forget what happened, it marks a very important phase. 

The university turned into a pile of rubble, with black flags on top. The campus trees died and the buildings were abandoned. Daesh turned them into storage for weapons or factories for car bombs. 

As the Iraqi forces’ battle to recapture Mosul continued, I left the city through humanitarian corridors set up for civilians and I ended up in one of the displacement camps on the outskirts of Erbil province. 

There was nothing left for me in Mosul but piles of stones, some memories and my family in Mosul cemetery. My father, older sister and little brother were killed when our house was bombed. 

Uncle Yunus and his family were buried under the rubble of their house in the old city. 

I found out later my friend Joseph Nabil managed to reach Germany as a refugee.

After the liberation of Mosul, the university slowly came back to life. Some of the faculties reopened. The central library stayed there, witness to the biggest crime of torching knowledge in contemporary history. 

I was allowed to continue my exams and graduated at 24, after years of pain, isolation, deprivation and fear. 

I lost family members and many of my friends in the occupation of Mosul, none of whom had anything to do with the war that killed them. My dream of graduating was wilada min al khasira, long, painful and nearly impossible.

Source: TRT World