In Disputed Iraqi Territory, Rebuilding A City Means Doing It Yourself

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Yacoub Youssef, in charge of the small city of Jalawla in northern Iraq, stands on a bridge rebuilt by residents after it was blown up by ISIS. The city was heavily damaged and is in disputed territory – claimed by both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.

For all of the terrible things that have happened to his city of Jalawla in northern Iraq, Yacub Youssef seems like a happy man.

Youssef is the sub-district director – essentially the mayor — of this small city just a few miles from Iran and about 90 miles north of Baghdad. ISIS occupied it in 2014, a few days after it took over Mosul. When the ISIS fighters were driven out two months later, Jalawla was left in ruins.

As we walk around town, Youssef stops and jokes with residents in Arabic and Kurdish, kisses babies and laughs some more. He shows us a concrete bridge across the Diyala River, repaired after ISIS blew it up. It's the town's biggest achievement.

"If the government would have done it, it would have cost millions," he says, and taken two or three years. Instead, he persuaded 35 local residents to kick in the $180,000 cost and they repaired it in less than a year. Local contractors donated some of the labor.

Jalawla is part of Diyala Province, controlled by the central Iraqi government. But it is part of a large swath of territory also claimed by the Kurdistan regional government, which broke away from Baghdad in 1991.

When the Iraqi army retreated after ISIS attacked three years ago, Kurdish forces moved in and have made clear that they're not leaving. Although both the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments claim Jalawla, neither has been willing to take responsibility for rebuilding it.

"I called Diyala [authorities] and they said, 'We can't help you.' The Kurdish Regional Government said they were going through difficult circumstances, so I had to search for another solution," Youssef says.

His solution was to ask townspeople to pitch in. In a country where people expect the government to provide jobs, health care, electricity, water and even land to build houses, this wasn't easy.

"You need to convince the citizen to pay from his own pocket," Youssef says. "It's not normal. He's coming from a catastrophe — he sees his house destroyed, there's no work and he's been in a camp for two years, and you say, 'Give me'? It's difficult."

Youssef, a former sports teacher, says once explosive experts cleared hundreds of explosives laid in the city, he brought families back in stages and persuaded them to clean up their own streets. Residents pooled money to buy neighborhood generators for electricity. His wife sold her jewelry to help repair the primary school, he says.

Local electrical workers soon figured out how to restore Jalawla's downed power lines and replaced missing transformers.

"I told the governor of Diyala we had electricity and he said, 'Where did you get it from?'" Youssef says with a laugh.

Students are back in school, which was repaired by residents after it was damaged in fighting. Townspeople even pooled their books for a book fair, to make sure every child had something to read.

Youssef says those who rebuilt the bridge won't get their money back, but their names will be recorded in history as having restored the "Challenge Bridge."

Jalawla's history, as well as its future, is complicated. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who saw Kurds as a threat, expelled hundreds of thousands of them from their homes in the north of Iraq and resettled Sunni Arabs in their place.

The city is now 80 percent Sunni Arab. Youssef is paid by the provincial government, which gets its funding from Baghdad. But he is a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls the area.

"I have to balance my relations," he says.

His own background helps. His father, a train conductor, is Arab. His mother is Kurdish. He is married to a Turkmen, the third biggest ethnic group in Jalawla.

Youssef says he is Iraqi before he is Arab or Kurdish.

"When we first came back to Jalawla, it was in ruins. Desolate," he says. "The government offices were destroyed, the market destroyed, the houses burned ... It would never occur to you that just a few months before, there were 63,000 people living here." His own office was blown up and his house leveled.

But he says city officials discovered how much residents loved their city. And international organizations came to help.

"An organization came to us and said, 'Our funds are from Israel. I said, 'It doesn't matter where you [are] from. I am grateful that you are coming to support Jalawla.' It's like my car is stuck in the mud. I will not ask where you are from and say, 'Don't push the car because you are Muslim or Christian.' I need someone to push it with me."

Here, as in other communities, families whose relatives join ISIS are barred from coming back. Youssef says he is negotiating with security authorities to allow those he knows are not a threat to return.

On the main street, shopkeepers have repaired the damage and reopened. Ruffled white and pink wedding dresses flutter in the breeze outside dress shops.

Omar Najeeb came back a year ago to find his storehouse of secondhand appliances completely looted. He says townspeople like Youssef because "he works 24 hours a day. He is close to us."

Hadi Abid hangs up brightly colored head scarves in a corrugated iron stall. Asked if residents want to be part of Iraq or part of Iraqi Kurdistan, he shrugs.

"We don't care if one side or the other provides our security," he says, "as long as our lives are back to normal."

As for Youssef, he says he is trying to figure out how to improve services and beautify the city.

"The city is our mother," he says. "From her, we learn and we progress. She gives us life. Our duty is to be good to our mother."

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