Return to Nimrud, the 3,000-Year-Old Ancient City Destroyed By ISIS
Returnees are keen to rebuild the lives they left behind, and salvage what they can of their history and community.
A multi-part editorial series exploring Untold Stories of Hope from Iraq, presented by Oxfam.
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Every morning three archaeologists climb a hill to the ruins of the palace of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, stepping gingerly over three exposed bombs planted in the dirt track. They've done this for a month now, feeling the same jolt of shock every time.
About 30km southeast of Mosul, Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city dating from around 1350 BC.
Considered one of the world's greatest archaeological treasures, it was violently destroyed by ISIS, who posted videos in March and April 2015 showing their fighters using sledgehammers to smash ancient tablets and a winged bull, levelling more of the site with a bulldozer, and eventually setting off explosives to destroy what remained of the almost 3000-year old structures.
"The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime," said Irina Bokova, head of the UN cultural agency Unesco, at the time. "There is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity's cultural heritage."
For Nimrud's local archaeologists, this attack on their history was personal. These men went from reading about Nimrud's 3000-year old sculptures and artifacts as schoolchildren, to giving tours of the site to their own children. "It was so important, you can't imagine," said Kahtan Khalf, 40.
"We were praying for it (to be saved)," said Abdullah Hamoud, 43. Instead, his worst fears were realised: pieces of ancient stone littered the ground, many unidentifiable.
Now, day by day, they rediscover what's left with trepidation. The area is still not "clear", meaning just one misstep could set off a bomb.
Leading the way, Hamoud recreated the tours he used to give visitors. He walked carefully through the ancient stone, occasionally picking up a broken piece of tablet or a shard of sculpture, and sighing.
Regardless of their losses, the archaeologists weren't totally despondent. They also paused to take photos and selfies, joking with each other about where they could and couldn't tread.
More of Nimrud's residents have begun to return to the region, though very cautiously. Basic infrastructure is still lacking, making it hard to live here. Most feel insecure.
Shortages in gas and electricity mean the local water plant can't get water to large portions of the surrounding area. Oxfam is helping repair it so villages have a steady supply of clean water.
The future is uncertain, but returnees are keen to rebuild the lives they left behind when ISIS attacked, and salvage what they can of their history and community.
"We couldn't work for three years because of ISIS," Khalf commented. "We're glad to be back."
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