Learning from a war

Spirit of a city

Dr. Huda Halawachy, who teaches at the University of Mosul, remained in her home town while it endured the three year occupation by ISIS. In conversation with Andy Homden she recalls the days after liberation in 2017, reflects on the lessons of war and celebrates a community’s enduring spirit.


There are five of us, moving on foot among the ruins of the buildings – one of my three sisters, a dentist, our next door neighbor and colleague, her mother (who was like a grandmother to us) in her wheelchair, and I. We had been joined by a young man from the left bank but we had left my parents and my two other sisters behind. There had been fierce fighting on the right bank of the city, where some quarters had been liberated, but our quarter had all but been destroyed.  The airstrikes were still severe, while snipers were active on the roofs of the buildings as we moved through the south side of the city, to get to a northern area on the left bank of the River Tigris. As the bridges across the river had been destroyed both by ISIS and airstrikes, this was the only way to get to our destination – my old University, where I had been teaching since 1998.


The experience of occupation

My name is Huda Halawachy. I teach English in the Department of English in the College of Arts, at the University of Mosul. For the three years between 2014 and 2017 during the occupation by ISIS, it never occurred to me that one day I would be able to tell this story. Like many others, when ISIS came, my family and I refused to leave our homes to a band of gangsters. I live on the West side of the city, close to the Downtown area – which has been renamed “ancient” Mosul. Here the destruction was at its worst. Here the casualties were highest. We took refuge from allied airstrikes in our basement, while our house, like our neighhbors’, was occupied by ISIS forces.

First lesson

I had left the university in June 2014, and I started my first post-liberation class nearly three years later on May 10 2017. Both days were unforgettable. Some of our colleagues whose homes had been in areas liberated a few months before, had already returned. As I passed through the University Gate, I could see the ruins of the University Presidency. War had reduced a globally reputed academic institution to a series of war-ravaged tableaux. How was I going to start my first lecture? What was I going to tell my students? These were the questions I was thinking about with each step.

I was about to meet the young people who had lost three years of their education – living through the horror of war and suffering countless individual losses. As I started the lecture, I found myself speaking in the American accent people associate with me, trying to take them back to a world of learning. I remember that I repeated the following advice “Never say three years; let us say there has been a gap, without referring to years!”.  By the end of the lesson, we had started the process of getting back to normal. Teaching English enables you to explore matters that are relevant to young people, and we decided that the first returning project was going to be a review of a book of their own choice. It had to be a favorite. Even though only a few students had returned, we were back on course. The summer sun was intense, there was no power supply to cool us and one or two lizards were our guests in those first classes. These were the “war lessons” and people talked freely. We were not going to be ostriches, ignoring what had happened.


In my view, teaching only the content of a lesson fails to create conditions for the best learning. Teamwork is not a new entry in my own academic dictionary. Dividing a class into groups to complete assignments or projects gives purpose: with teamwork and collaboration people can achieve so much more, and after the occupation this was essential. If teamwork is increasingly valued by academics and university mission statements, it was an essential precondition of what we now had to undertake – reconstruction.

War had defined our need for a collaborative mission. Once the military operations were done and the university was cleared of explosives, volunteers, mostly high school and university students started organizing themselves in civil unions to clear up the mess and start the process of reviving our city.

Converting black to white was not and is still not an easy mission! Students worked on the ground with members of staff, employees and civil unions, to clean the college and buildings that had not been destroyed. College professors, like Dr. Ahmed J. Yaaseen specialist in Modern Arabic Literature, rolled up their sleeves and joined in the task of painting. The work was funded by personal donations – and we must remember that no salaries had been paid for two years, anywhere in the city.

Our library

One of the most heart-breaking losses of the whole war was the burning of the Central Library by ISIS.  It is the heart of our university – one of the best-established libraries in Iraq and the Arab World.

Imagine – burning a place full of rare works of reference, ancient documents, dissertations, theses and books!

Honestly, it was a hard job for the young people to go through ash and rubble to find books inside the burned out shell. Upsetting though it was, everyone moved on. There were no “dead ends” in our work.



Our recovery had to be sustainable. I have always loved gardening, and during the occupation I was really encouraged when I got a free membership from the International Society of Development and Sustainability in Japan in 2015. I was at least in touch with the world again.

Restoring our lovely gardens is now a huge task, but again teamwork is taking us forward. I shared my ideas with my “war class” and two volunteer students in the group I am teaching (Husam and Ahmad) helped me get the project started with the assistance of three small donations.

The Scientific Associate of the College of Arts , Asst. Prof. Dr. Wa’ad Al–Ameer and the gardener, Abu Ahmad were great team members and worked side by side.

We started planting flower beds near the University entrance, and our aim is to move on from the flowers we have already planted and bring trees back to the campus with an afforestation campaign!

Lessons through a broken window

Talking about the war now reminds me of Alice looking into the glass. In the twilight zone of the war on the other side, we see images which are now part of our reconstructed peace.

One of the most amazing stories I came across was about a group of young and talented musicians, who practiced, played and composed new pieces in secret during those long years.

I seldom went out, but stayed at home reading, and searched the net if I could.


These secret lives are now being played out in public. The First Festival of Reading was held on September 7th, 2017 at the University.  Mosuli citizens of all ages gathered to enjoy listening to music and readings from books. They were able to admire drawings, portraits and handicrafts.  The festival seemed to tell the world:

We are back!”.

For me, the festival showed our collective potential, motivating young people in general and students, in particular. We had been able to look through a window broken by war and learn a new lesson about appreciating books, the arts and life.


Ultimately, perhaps we can say with Sun Tzu,

Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance, without fighting.

And yes, we are back.



Dr. Huda Halawachy,

Dr. Huda teaches at Department of English in the College of Arts, University of Mosul

Link to the University’s website in Arabic: http://www.uomosul.edu.iq/





The spirit of the university has been inspiring. I would like to pay special tribute to the work of  Assistant Professor Dr. Wa’ad Alameer, for his continual support of our gardening project and of Assistant Professor Dr. Ahmed Yaaseen a poet and painter, who let his brush speak whiteness to the walls of his College after they had turned black. The wonderful pictures of  Ali Al-Baroody, Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Translation bear witness to the world of that savage war.  Finally I must thank my students, Husam and Ahmad, Abu Ahmad , the gardener of the College of Arts, and all  the civil unions who did the impossible and brought our campus back to life.


 Feature Image: ErikaWittlieb – Pixabay