Mosul University in Iraq is rebuilding its campus and its community after surviving its own “dark age”.
The university was occupied for more than two years by the so-called Islamic State group – and kept open in a state of persecution and terror.
After such a traumatic experience, and the destruction caused in the battle for the city, there is still much to put right.
“The central library still resembles a piece of charcoal,” says Ashraf Riadh Al-Allaf, senior lecturer in the English department in Mosul.
Yazidi students return
He says what was once one of the biggest libraries in the Middle East went up in flames and the main administration buildings were “destroyed to the ground”.
There is still rubble to be cleared, says Dr Al-Allaf, but the students are back and academics are rebuilding links with the international community.
There is a project with Lancaster University, with the UK university sharing expertise and online technology with their Iraqi academic colleagues.
“It has taken a while, but the culture of the university is slowly resurfacing,” he says.
In particular, he says, it’s a promising sign to see minority groups, such as Christian and Yazidi students, returning to the university.
“Their mere presence is highly welcomed,” he says, even if they are commuting into the university rather than living in Mosul.
Having a more diverse group of students feels like “going back to normal ways”.
Reign of terror
But it’s no simple happy ending. The university, the second biggest in Iraq with 30,000 students, had been subjected to a reign of terror.
There can be few universities that have seen such brutality, with the curriculum and ethos re-shaped around the ideology and the war efforts of the IS regime.
Academics at the time described a climate of fear, with books being burned, spies, subjects such as literature being banned and the threat of punishment.
The university staff who remained in Mosul “were forced to go to work and reluctantly did so out of fear for losing their lives”, he says.
Among them is a “desire to forget”.
When the university was liberated it faced destruction from ground and air attacks.
“Students and staff alike are grateful to be back. However, there is still fear,” says Dr Al-Allaf.
“The feeling of being safe and secure has diminished – and will never come back for the current generation.”
Sense of insecurity
The psychological legacy of the war and the IS occupation still casts a long shadow.
The sense of insecurity is deep-rooted. He says there is a residual fear of a return of terrorism – and an irritation at post-war corruption.
“There is little optimism,” he says.
There are also concerns that even though the conflict has ended there is still not an adequate commitment to supporting the university and equipping it with modern facilities.
“Yes, we see renovation, rebuilding, and new paint on the outside, but there is still a lack of substance, and resources,” says Dr Al-Allaf.
Facilities are out of date and there’s a lack of books and computer equipment. He says there needs to be training in new methods of teaching and a more modern approach to administration.
Universities are international places and Dr Al-Allaf says that Mosul has suffered from being isolated.
“We have the capabilities, but have been cut off from the world. All we need to do is catch up,” he said.
Dr Al-Allaf is trying to rebuild connections with the international academic community and has been working with staff at Lancaster University in the UK.
Lancaster has helped to support the teaching of linguistics at Mosul, providing mentoring for staff and students via video-conferencing, advice for PhD students and free access to an online course.
Elena Semino, a professor at Lancaster, said academics at the University of Mosul are “working in conditions that we cannot even imagine”.
“The staff and students are exceptionally enterprising and enthusiastic and we will do everything we can to help them. They know that we are rooting for them,” said Prof Semino.
There are signs of Iraq’s universities recovering. The University of Baghdad appeared in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings of top global universities this autumn.
Dr Al-Allaf says academics in Iraq need to build bridges and to get support from colleagues in other countries.
“We need academic support, and making links with universities worldwide is essential,” he says.
“The University of Mosul would love to hear from you, even if it’s only to say hello.”
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Source BBC News