MOSUL, Iraq — In the heat of the late summer sun, weeks after the end of one of the largest urban battles since World War II, a high school principal trekked from his home in east Mosul to the west bank of the Tigris River to confront the ruins of his life’s work.
Bordering Mosul’s Old City, his stately Ottoman-era school, where generations of Iraqi political and military leaders studied, lay in ruin. Two campus buildings had been leveled by American coalition airstrikes during the battle against the Islamic State. Century-old stone walls were scarred from shrapnel. The once-gleaming computer lab, library and theater, which in 2014 presented a student production of “Macbeth,” were burned by retreating Islamic State fighters.
The scale of devastation at the place he hoped to mold Iraq’s next generation of leaders drew a flutter of despair from the principal, Muthana Saleh. But then he harnessed the traits that residents of Mosul are famous for: ingenuity and industriousness. This month, thanks in part of volunteers and an Iraqi donor, he is planning to restart classes for 450 students.
“We solve problems,” he said. “We find resources. We find a way. It’s the spirit of Mosul.”
For three years, this metropolis of three million people, Iraq’s second-largest city, lived under the harsh rule of the Islamic State. When the militant group was finally ousted in July, it signaled the beginning of the end of its self-declared caliphate, which once occupied a third of the country and much of Syria. American-backed Iraqi forces swept across the country, officially declaring the job finished this weekend.
But the battle for Mosul lasted nearly nine months, killing thousands of people, displacing nearly a million and leaving entire districts in smoldering heaps of rubble.
Around 600,000 people remain displaced, and approximately 60,000 homes are uninhabitable. The city’s business and government sectors are crippled, with at least 20,000 commercial and government buildings destroyed, according to aerial images commissioned by the United Nations.
The west side in particular sustained apocalyptic damage. It took six months of grinding street-by-street battles and aerial bombardment to free the area, including the labyrinthine Old City, where the militants made their last stand.
“Mosul is a tale of two cities,” said Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq and head of the United Nations Development Program. “In east Mosul, more than 95 percent of people are home. On the west side, it’s a completely different picture. Yet people are rolling up their sleeves and determined to get their lives back.”
Since the summer, the international community has spent about $ 400 million to help restore electricity, water and medical services, and donor countries, along with the Iraqi government, are struggling to create and finance a comprehensive multibillion-dollar redevelopment plan.
In the interim, Muslawis — as Mosul residents are called — have mustered their own resources and philanthropic spirit to breathe new life into the city.
The highways leading to Mosul are clogged with flatbed trucks bringing in commercial goods and construction materials. On both sides of the river, gleaming rows of washing machines, space heaters and children’s bikes are for sale. Restaurants, especially those with family sections, are doing a roaring business.
On Nov. 30, a Mosul nonprofit organized a marathon and shorter foot races for children, an event that drew around 4,000 people.
“We are excited to change the atmosphere of Mosul,” said Feras Khalil, an engineer supervising the reconstruction of Fountain Square, a park along a main commercial street on Mosul’s east side. “We want to give the opportunity for our neighbors to breathe fresh air after defeating Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
On the east side, the sprawling Mosul University campus hums with activity from the 30,000 students — men and women — who are attending classes this fall. Hundreds of students from other parts of Iraq have also re-enrolled, a testament, they say, to their parents’ confidence about security.
For centuries, Mosul has been a center of learning. In the Middle Ages, scholars here pioneered surgical techniques and medical instruments still used by contemporary doctors. The university remains highly regarded for its medical and science graduates.
During Islamic State rule, however, most classes ground to a halt, both because the group forbade the teaching of what it considered sinful or irrelevant subjects, like art and philosophy, and because professors and students were afraid to venture out of their homes.
The campus, like most areas of Mosul, shows scars of conflict. United States coalition airstrikes destroyed four science buildings that the Islamic State had been using as weapons research labs. University administrators say they have no idea how to replace the millions of books from their library, a repository for old manuscripts and research materials, that were burned by the Islamic State, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in science equipment.
Yet staff and students have tackled smaller tasks on their own.
Professor Intisar Abdel Rada, who has taught accounting for 18 years, helped supervise a group of professors and students who raised money to repair ceilings and electrical wiring in her department’s classrooms, and cleaned and painted lecture halls, work that enabled classes to resume last month. “It’s like we were dead but have been resuscitated,” she said while rushing between her lectures.
A few miles away, at Al Khansaa Pediatric and Maternity Hospital, the director, Dr. Jamal Younis, worked throughout the summer with international aid organizations such as Doctors Without Borders to solve critical needs, like installing generators and incubators to keep the city’s only maternity ward and pediatric surgery theaters operational.
He still faces frequent gaps in the daily operating budget — in October an average of four babies were born at Al Khansaa each day — but the staff struggled to maintain stocks like surgical gloves and food for patients.
For now, his problem solver is Dr. Saad Salih, a surgeon who counts members of Mosul’s wealthiest families as friends.
When medicine earmarked for the hospital was stuck in Erbil about 60 miles away, a phone call to a local businessman raised the $ 500 needed to rent two flatbed trucks to transport the drugs to Mosul. Calls to pharmacy owners have brought in donations of bandages and surgical supplies.
Prominent Iraqis outside Mosul have also pitched in. Dr. Salih said a group of British Iraqis had sent funds for hospital supplies. Last week, a man delivered an envelope with $ 1,200 from a Baghdad-based surgeon who was born in Mosul and wanted to help her hometown.
“We lived through decades where people did not trust each other in Iraq,” Dr. Salih said. “That’s the truth and a big challenge facing us now. But somehow, now it’s different. People really are motivated to help one another.”
Across the river, in the Old City, the few residents lucky enough to have their homes still standing say they also are invigorated by community spirit.
Talal Muhammad, a father of four, has run a small shop in the Old City’s Bab al Bedh district selling dairy goods for 30 years. A Muslawi philanthropist gave him the equivalent of $ 850 last month to help repair his refrigerators. Those funds helped kick-start a flickering commercial renaissance. Now, amid the rubble, nine shops have reopened.
Intisar Mehdi, the matriarch of her 20-member family, said she was the last person to leave the during the fighting this summer and the first to return. She immediately put her four children and 10 grandchildren to work cleaning the ashes and rubble from their house and fix piping to their well.
A month ago, she says, her winding lane was quiet and isolated. Now, it’s filled with noise from an army of toddlers and the chatter of housewives exchanging information about developments in the city.
About a mile away, at the Sharqiya Secondary School, Mr. Saleh, the principal, is using the challenge of rebuilding as a teachable moment, reflecting the motto that hangs on one of the school’s old stone walls: “The misfortunes of some can be turned into an advantage for others.”
Since August, Mr. Saleh has been fielding calls from dozens of teachers and hundreds of parents pleading to resume classes.
He persuaded the police commander responsible for his area to secure the school grounds from bombs and other dangerous material.
In October, he organized teachers and administrators in shifts to clear rubble and burned equipment from several buildings. The police commander then put him in touch with a Baghdad-based charity that wanted to donate building equipment.
Now, Mr. Saleh says, he will transform his 450 waiting students into a volunteer work force. This week, they plan to install doors and windows in 10 classrooms, enough space to start classes by the end of the year, he says.
“None of us want to lose any more time,” said Ahmed Jassim, 20, who had to delay his senior year of high school during the Islamic State’s occupation. “Our city has major problems that are too huge for us to solve. But this part, we can manage.”