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Local Recognition and the ringing of UNESCO Bells in Iraq

After the last major battle for Mosul and whilst pockets of ISIS were still active in the city, I began searching for sites of civil significance, places that had been used for violence, oppression and control (torture places, mass graves, sites where mass shootings had taken place and areas for public punishment). After days of visiting displacement camps, meeting families and sitting with tribal chiefs I had a list of potential sites. In 2017 I was taken to a church in the al-shaareen area. With a small group of locals, I entered al-Tahira church, through a small door covered in graffiti we found heaps of ISIS-designated contraband, bodies, graffiti and plenty of rubble alongside signs that the building had been used for something more sinister. I learnt from a local teacher, his brother and many others that this church had been a prison and punishment facility, it had been run by the dreaded Hisbah in Mosul. It was a place feared by the local community, a place many didn’t come back from.


Today the al-Tahira is a sanitised symbolic Catholic church in Mosul and a major part of UNESCO’s ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’, an initiative dedicated to the reconstruction and revival of the city’s cultural landmarks. Last week the new bells (which were cast in Italy), were shipped and installed above the church in Mosul and rang out over the city once again.  As the bells rang they tolled of a milestone in the building’s recovery after the war with ISIS. UNESCO and their stakeholders lost no time acknowledging their achievements with international politicians, diplomats, donors and the media invited to share the occasion and the platform for press and plaudits. Seemingly therefore another case study in exorbitant 'amour propre', lampooning peacebuilding pretensions, political correctness and the technocratic culture of post-conflict heritage protection.


Therefore, in a modest effort to offer some balance, I would like to acknowledge the people, their families and the communities traumatised by this building’s reuse during the war. I wish to recognise those who came to harm in that building, the groups of people who lived in the fear that one day they would be taken there. I would like to recognise the traumatic memories that this building (and others like it ) resonate locally and express my regret their needs are still to be met.


I wrote about it and places like it in my report for the United Nations agency IOM – I aim to do the same in all cities, towns and villages consumed by conflict.


I have read many reports and articles on Mosul and the work dedicated to the revival of the spirit of Mosul, I have found little that acknowledges the suffering of the local population groups in and around these large projects of cultural significance, little about the camps that are still full of displaced people and who once lived in and around the city. I hadn't seen any research or surveys of local citizens (stayee, returnee, displaced and diaspora) and their attitudes towards the projects until recently at UNESCO’s 70th-anniversary event in the Netherlands where Professor Lynn Meskell presented incredible research into international Large-scale initiative, local attitudes and slow burn tensions… (click here for more)


If these projects are as UNESCO (and others) suggest “fostering reconciliation and social cohesion in Mosul through the restoration and reconstruction of emblematic historical sites as part of UNESCO’s led international initiative “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” where are the conversations about local trauma, the acknowledgement of places like the al-Tahira Church as places that are imbued with memories of violence. Where is the recognition of local suffering and the methods in which to address social scapegoating and exclusion of urban residents less palatable than others?


History suggests there is a real risk to the stability of a post-conflict nation and the sustainability of peace when those in charge let its legacy of violence slip into the shadowy realms of rumour and resentment in the hope that some local amnesia ensues. When the reality is that these memories will fester and grow to a point that new violence ensues. The risk of violence increases again when memories and minorities are silenced and the people who lived through (and still living with) the horrors of war are not acknowledged.  


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