LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now it's time for one of our Weekend Long Listens. Today, we get to know an Iraqi man who's seen seven decades of glory days and tragic turns in the city of Mosul. ISIS held that city for three years and was forced out a year ago in a battle that still leaves much of the city's historic district in rubble. And it was there that NPR's Jane Arraf started to visit the man who kept watch on one street.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Qassim Yahya has an old radio to keep him company as he makes tea on an open fire on the sidewalk. He watches over this half-destroyed street in Mosul's old city from a battered, wooden bench. It's February when we first meet, a year since the neighborhood was the last to be freed from ISIS. But most of the roads are still closed. The few shop owners who come here pay Yahya to keep away looters.
QASSIM YAHYA: (Speaking Arabic).
ARRAF: He speaks quickly as if he's afraid he won't have time for all his stories. He measures his life now in half years. He says he's 75 1/2 years old. In his lifetime, he's seen heaven and hell here.
YAHYA: (Through interpreter) It was paradise here - paradise. We'd go fishing on the river. We'd hunt birds. There were four or five of us. They were good people, good friends. I'm the only one left.
ARRAF: Mosul's old city is special. It was a historic trading center and one of the most diverse cities in the Middle East with Muslims, Christians and smaller ancient religious groups. Until the 1960s, a lot of Yahya's neighbors in the balconied houses on narrow streets were Jewish.
YAHYA: (Through interpreter) They were nice people. They didn't hurt anyone. They were educated, polite, respectful.
ARRAF: Iraq's ancient Jewish community was pressured into leaving decades ago. And ISIS expelled the Christians when it took over Mosul in 2014.
YAHYA: (Speaking Arabic).
ARRAF: And as ISIS declared Mosul its capital and tightened its grip on the city, things became unbelievably grim. Yahya describes the almost daily public executions ISIS forced residents to witness. One was an 11-year-old boy named Ahmed (ph), a neighbor. Ahmed's crime was cursing as he played soccer in the street.
YAHYA: (Through interpreter) ISIS took him away and then brought him back. We thought they were releasing him. But they put a concrete block on the street and made him lie with his head on it and beheaded him. He was an only child. His mother went crazy. She covered her face in his blood.
ARRAF: Yahya says he personally saw hundreds of people beheaded or thrown off buildings. Others starved when ISIS hoarded food as Iraqi forces approached. Yahya's brother was shot by ISIS as he was trying to escape. He assumes he died, but he never found the body. Yahya's house was destroyed. But he survived with just a few shrapnel wounds. But every one of his close friends was either killed or is still missing. Most of the thousands of civilians who died in Mosul were killed in U.S. coalition and Iraqi airstrikes and artillery as they fought to take back the city.
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ARRAF: I come back to Yahya's neighborhood in July. It's still in ruins. But people are beginning to come back. Yahya still has a wooden bench outside the shop where we first met him. But with the roads open now, the shop owners don't pay him to watch for looters anymore.
YAHYA: (Speaking Arabic).
ARRAF: "I changed to fishing because there's no work now," he says. Yahya is tall and wiry, his head normally covered in a checkered scarf. There's a tattoo on his forearm of a heart on fire. He says it's for a girl he loved when he was 16. His parents wouldn't let him marry her because they said he was too young. He used to give her rides to high school on his motorbike. He still rides a motorbike down to the river.
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ARRAF: He fishes there mornings and evenings with a couple of cousins in their 20s. We join him one morning setting off on the Tigris River on a handmade, wooden boat. We pass under a bridge where traffic flows around a huge, gaping hole left by an airstrike. This is how the fish. They attach cables from a car battery in the boat to a long, wooden pole into the water. The electrical charge stuns the fish. And then they scoop them up with a net and throw them in the boat, where they flop at my feet.
So we're floating by in this lovely, calm river, and the seagulls are circling overhead. But what we're passing by is just this horrific scene of destruction. It's layers and layers of rubble with houses collapsed on top of each other and the rubble itself tumbling down into the Tigris River. But the worst thing about it is these guys on the boat - those were their houses.
AHMED DHIA: (Speaking Arabic).
ARRAF: "That was my house," says Yahya's cousin Ahmed Dhia. He's 28. He points to some walls with no ceiling. One of his friends, Arkan Akram, points at the ruins of his grandfather's house. His father was killed there. Younis Abdullah, Yahya's other cousin, says you can't see his house because it's completely flattened.
ARRAF: They say all the airstrikes were U.S. coalition strikes aiming at ISIS.
MOHAMMAD HAMAD: (Speaking Arabic).
ARRAF: "We lived here for generations," says Mohammad Hamad, who is fishing in a boat near us. "It's painful to see it," he says, "the whole neighborhood gone." Yahya says sometimes he's too tired to come out fishing with his young cousins. He says his father lived to be 121, but he doesn't want that for himself. He doesn't want to be a burden on his wife - his second wife, after his first died - or his daughters.
YAHYA: (Through interpreter) When a person gets older, he can't take care of himself. He gets sick. When you're in that situation, it will be one or two months. And the family will get tired of it. It's like when a camel gets sick and falls, and then all the knives come out.
ARRAF: He says, sometimes, he goes to bed and thinks, I hope I die in my sleep.
YAHYA: (Through interpreter) I'm not afraid of death at all. The only thing I'm afraid of is to die and have my body thrown in the street like all the other people who died. And their bodies were in the rubble and the rubbish.
ARRAF: We float down the river. The electricity buzzes. The seagulls circle. Dhia and Abdullah talk about emigrating, how if they could get to another country, they would live like kings.
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ARRAF: A lot of nights, they end up like this - on the riverbank, cooking fish over a wood fire and listening to the old, plastic radio Yahya carries everywhere. He made a living for years fixing radios back when radios had tubes. Sometimes, there's fear. Even during ISIS times, Yahya says, he was able to get alcohol. Around the fire, Yahya amuses the younger guys by doing tricks.
ARRAF: And then he does this magic trick where he takes two pieces of plastic. We saw it - two pieces of plastic, puts them in his mouth, pulls it out. And it's one piece again.
The cousins are waiting for late evening, for the moon to rise to go out fishing again.
ARRAF: This river and the streets of his neighborhood were Yahya's paradise. He's almost 76 now, keeping alive the memory of the old days in Mosul's old city. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.
(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "CHOANAL IMPERFORATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.