D.I.Y. Mosul Fed up with government inaction, young people start rebuilding Mosul on their own. But in post-ISIS Iraq, volunteering can quickly become an act of rebellion.
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D.I.Y. Mosul

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D.I.Y. Mosul

D.I.Y. Mosul

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

There's this video that I cannot stop watching - filmed a couple years ago in Mosul, Iraq, during the first peaceful month that that city had had in a long time. The video is scored with this music. And it starts in an ordinary supermarket, just like an Iraqi A&P - people walking by, filling up their baskets with bottles of shampoo and Sunquick cola and baklava and boxed milk. And all this time, on the linoleum floor right in the middle of the aisle, there is an empty plastic water bottle 2 feet from the trashcan. Everyone is stepping over it or walking around it. Finally, a little girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, with a blue sun dress with a bow in the back - she lets go of her mom's hand, reaches down, picks up the bottle and tosses it in the trash.

(APPLAUSE)

WARNER: Dozens of people jump out of the aisles. And they're clapping. And someone puts a microphone in the girl's face and asks her name. She says it's Sara. He says, thank you for cleaning our city. He gives her mom a box of chocolates. And then she leaves. And the whole thing is repeated. The bottle is placed again on the floor. This time, it's a woman who picks it up. Again, applause, thank-you's, chocolates. And a third time.

SAFWAN AL-MADANI: Yeah, I was one of these guys clapping for these people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Safwan al-Madani is one of the makers of this video, though on screen he just plays a bit role, just one of the clapping people. You can see him there with soft, brown eyes, gelled hair. He's 29 years old. And he says this video is about something much bigger than picking up litter.

MADANI: I just was trying to consolidate the idea of citizenship and how to love the city you belong to.

WARNER: Loving the city you belong to was kind of a tough thing to ask of the people of Mosul. This video was filmed weeks after the end of a long war, a war that followed years of occupation by ISIS. People had spent so long bunkered down in their houses, afraid to draw any attention to themselves. Safwan often felt that even helping out in this tiny way - that was something to celebrate.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: So Mosul, as long as I've been going there, was the kind of place where you just kept your head down.

WARNER: Jane Arraf is the one who told me about this video. She'd covered Iraq for three decades and never seen anything like it.

ARRAF: Under al-Qaida or ISIS, even if you saw somebody placing a bomb on your street, you would be really careful about who you reported it to because then you could be targeted. And it was like that even before that under the Saddam days. It was just safer to keep to yourself.

Were you here this morning?

And then all of a sudden, I was meeting all of these people coming together to do things like clean schools and hospitals.

You know what? I think the dumper's trying to get through.

And I would go out on the street. And I would see a guy with the loudspeaker kind of preaching the benefits of volunteerism on the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Is he saying, we need to work for no money? Like, what is he...

ARRAF: What I remember him emphasizing was the fact that we can make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. And this is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show that takes you far away with stories that hit close to home. As Jane started digging into what was happening in Mosul, she met these larger-than-life people, like a 23-year-old nurse who started going around the city, finding bodies of fighters and defusing suicide belts.

ARRAF: You don't think that's a little bit crazy?

WARNER: That was her volunteerism project.

SROOR AL-HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) If I think I know how to do it, then I can do it.

WARNER: Or that guy Safwan who made that supermarket video. He has since taken on the task of restoring the city's water infrastructure.

MADANI: The water will come back there...

WARNER: So today on the show, we're going to tell you these two stories about one person trying to clear away death, the other trying to bring life in a place where just cleaning up your city can feel like an act of rebellion.

ARRAF: That's a lot of smoke.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, yeah.

ARRAF: You call the dumper, and it's like a little tractor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You hate the smell and the sound...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Let me go on a limb here and say that every reporter I know who has spent time in Iraq knows Jane Arraf. She was there covering Saddam Hussein and then the second Gulf War and then the rise of al-Qaida, the American occupation, ISIS. And she has learned this way of talking about war and suffering with a great deal of calm.

ARRAF: Is it disconcerting that I'm calm? I wonder about that sometimes.

WARNER: No, not at all.

ARRAF: OK.

WARNER: Is it how you are?

ARRAF: Yeah.

WARNER: And Jane says this calmness is partly a holdover from growing up in Canada.

ARRAF: Yeah.

WARNER: But partly, it's just the hazard of her job as an NPR correspondent.

ARRAF: I mean, I'm desperately trying to convey the image of things. But I also don't want to upset whoever I'm talking to.

WARNER: But in Mosul, even a year into the piece, long after that war to liberate the city from ISIS...

ARRAF: You have children going off to school at the start of the school year. And many of them will be passing by, like, severed hands that are coming out of these piles of rubble or bits of skulls.

WARNER: Wow.

ARRAF: You could walk down pretty much every street, and there were bodies.

WARNER: Some of these bodies were being picked up, bodies of loved ones being claimed by their relatives. But thousands of other bodies were just left there - bodies of ISIS fighters or, sometimes, whole ISIS families.

ARRAF: Thrown on top of piles of rubble.

WARNER: These were the bodies of the enemy, left there either out of disrespect or governmental neglect. But now these bodies were getting in the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: This is another video that Jane showed me from a report on VICE News about a store owner who wants to rebuild his shops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A local business owner who wants to reopen stores in his building, which was severely damaged in an airstrike.

WARNER: But he's got a problem. In the front walkway, where his customers would walk in, there is a human foot planted in the ground - like, literally planted. You can see the bare toes, the sole, the ankle. And then what's under the ground? Nobody knows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: He's waited five months for authorities to do something about this foot sticking out of the ground.

WARNER: Five months - no help. And then he hears about somebody he can reach out to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There is one group trying to solve this problem - volunteers who've taken on the grim task of removing the dead from the rubble.

WARNER: He calls a number. And this team shows up that looks like a bunch of college kids. There is nothing official about them. They are not wearing hazmat suits, no badges - just shovels and gloves. And their leader...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUSSEINI: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: ...Is this 23-year-old nurse named Sroor - Sroor al-Husseini.

ARRAF: Sroor has this commanding presence. But she's actually not a very large person. She's quite petite. Sometimes, she wears, like, a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It takes about an hour for Husseini's team to remove this one body.

HUSSEINI: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: When she checks the pockets...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUSSEINI: (Speaking Arabic). It's a bomb.

WARNER: There is a live grenade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's a bomb.

HUSSEINI: Yeah, in here. (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: Who was this woman who'd assembled this team of guys to do this dangerous, gruesome work for zero pay? To tell that story, we need to go back a few years when ISIS still controlled this city. They'd imposed their extreme version of Sharia law.

ARRAF: It meant that people like Sroor, women particularly, had all of these rules all of a sudden. They couldn't dress the way they wanted. They couldn't work anymore.

WARNER: And Sroor, who'd then gotten her nursing degree and had a supportive husband who wanted to let her work - she wasn't allowed. So Sroor, who has nothing to do every day, will walk the half an hour to her parents' house and sit with her 14-year-old sister, Nebras. Her sister's school was shut down. And to pass the time...

ARRAF: They would read together.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) With some books, they would take me two or three days to read. And then some books - 'cause they were smaller - I could finish two or three in a day.

ARRAF: Anything she could get her hands on. She would go to what used to be the local bookseller. And he would give her books that had the covers covered, so nobody would know what she was reading because reading almost everything was banned under ISIS.

What did you read?

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Everything. I read novels, medical textbooks, stories, books about human development. I read everything.

ARRAF: One of the ironies of the ISIS occupation - all of a sudden, there are all of these people in Mosul, particularly women, who stayed home. And they read books that would've been subversive to ISIS. And it was happening all over.

WARNER: Why is that an irony?

ARRAF: It's an irony because it created these particularly young people who were exposed to all these different ideas that ISIS definitely would not have allowed to circulate.

HUSSEINI: Victor Hugo. (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Sroor says one of her favorites was "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo.

Why was it your favorite?

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I don't know - 'cause the stories that were in it were really nice. You know, it's kind of talking about the tragedy in people's lives. And it was talking about this mom that was trying to raise her daughters and was doing everything to try to make a better life for them. And it got to the point that she was selling her hair and her teeth just to make life a little bit better.

WARNER: Sroor loved "Les Mis" as a story of people sacrificing themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Iraqi forces are involved in fierce fighting...

WARNER: And as she and her sister were escaping into these novels, they were also listening to the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Good morning. We're right along the front...

ARRAF: The news was that U.S. and Iraqi forces were sweeping through ISIS-held territory and liberating other cities in Iraq. Then they got to Mosul. And they liberated the east side. But Sroor and her family lived across the river on the west side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Iraqi troops are pushing deeper into the densely populated, old city.

ARRAF: Sroor and her family were trapped.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) No one could leave their home. There was gunfire everywhere. And every time that you went out, you were risking your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: They've dropped leaflets telling people to stay away from ISIL hideouts.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Mortars were being shot at people's homes, and people were dying inside of their homes.

ARRAF: She and her husband managed to flee through the fighting to the liberated east side to her uncle's house, but her family is still trapped on the west side.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) So for two days I couldn't communicate with them. Their phones were off, and I didn't know what was going on with my family. On the third day, I got up for the early morning prayer, and then I tried calling them again. And my older brother answered.

ARRAF: And what she learns was...

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) They were on their way to escape, but then they came to my house to get me, too. And they stayed there waiting for me, but they didn't realize that I had already escaped.

ARRAF: There was a sniper - an ISIS sniper - who saw them. So they went in the house to wait. And her little sister had brought a book with her. She's sitting on a chair near the wall, reading the book. There's a metal door there. And that's when an airstrike hit - the airstrike that would've been targeting the sniper. And the door collapsed on her.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) My sister was killed.

ARRAF: She decides she's going to go back, and she crosses the river to the west, where the battle is still going on. And when she does finally find her family, her brother has wrapped their sister's body in a blanket, and he's placed it on a wooden cart, like they use to sell vegetables. And they wheel her through the rubble to try to take her to the east side to bury her, but they're stopped by officers before they get to the river.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) The Army said no.

ARRAF: You can't cross the river with a dead body.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) No one. It was completely forbidden.

ARRAF: Sroor can see all around her, there are people hurriedly burying their loved ones in basements or in the dirt around houses.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I completely refused to leave my sister. We totally refused this thing.

ARRAF: So she goes to find the most senior officer there - turns out to be a lieutenant colonel.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I told him that I'm a nurse. I'm experienced at stitching wounds and treating the wounded. I asked him to agree to transfer my sister's body. And then I said, pretend that she's wounded and that she died on the way. If you accept this, then I'll come back to the west side, and I'll work with you guys as a nurse until it's fully liberated.

ARRAF: And not only does he let her cross, his officers put through Sroor and her family and the body of her sister in an ambulance, and they drive them across.

WARNER: For the three days of mourning after the funeral, she keeps remembering something that the colonel said to her just before he put her in the ambulance that took them across the bridge.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) He said to me, you're not going to return. The doctors in Mosul aren't coming back to help us. You're a girl, and you're not going to be able to come back to an area with military operations going on. The men aren't helping. So then, of course, like, the women won't be helping, either. They have a stereotype about Mosul, and I wanted to go back and change that image, even though I was just one person.

ARRAF: So this wasn't just a stereotype about women. This is a stereotype about the people of Mosul. Mosul is an almost-exclusively Sunni city now. And for decades, there has been a divide that's run through Iraq - Sunni and Shia - that enters into this because the security forces that came to liberate Mosul are mostly Shia.

WARNER: What she's saying is, as a Sunni herself - and Mosul's a Sunni city - she's looked at with distrust by the Shia - by Shia security forces. And ISIS is an extreme version of Sunnis. So...

ARRAF: So the perception of a lot of Iraqis was that people in Mosul handed over their city to ISIS, and they didn't fight. So why would they fight now, and why would they care about Iraqi security forces?

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) In my opinion, the best revenge against ISIS is to be humane.

ARRAF: She tells her mother she's going, back and she's going to work with these Iraqi security forces on the front lines to win back her city.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) We rescue people. Their aim was to keep killing people.

ARRAF: Sroor's mom told me she was worried. She'd already lost one daughter, and she didn't want to lose another. But she was also proud of Sroor.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I used to stay working in the field for seven, eight, sometimes 10 days or more. And then I'd go home for two days, and then I would come back to work.

ARRAF: She talks about sleeping with her boots on. She talks about being useful.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I was helping people, especially women.

ARRAF: There weren't any female medics at that particular place, so she was the one who could, like, undress the women to treat them.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) I was able to pull out shrapnel and bullets.

ARRAF: I mean, that's the kind of training you do not get in nursing school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The war takes six months. Then by the end of it, Sroor feels like a different person. She's got a new sense of herself and what she's capable of. So after victory is declared and there are parades in Baghdad and press conferences in Washington, Sroor heads back to the streets of her old neighborhood to see what's left.

ARRAF: She was seeing not just the destruction - these destroyed buildings and the remnants of people's lives - she was seeing bodies lying all over the place. There were cats darting in and out of the houses that were feeding on the bodies. She was worried that bodies could seep into the water supply. And she also specifically says it affected the children.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) The children can become affected at a young age and become aggressive just from seeing these bodies everywhere.

WARNER: So Sroor decides she's got to get somebody to do something, but the first government agency she goes to - they said...

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) That's not our job. Go to the department of health for that.

ARRAF: So she goes to the department of health.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) And they said, it's not our job to collect these bodies. Go to city hall.

WARNER: At city hall, they're slammed. They can't help her, either. But Sroor does manage to strike a deal with them that if she bags up the bodies and drags them to the main road, city hall trucks will come and take those bodies to the morgue.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) At the end of the day, it's our city and nobody else's.

WARNER: Her mother begs her, please don't do this. She's worried she'll catch a disease or get blown up.

ARRAF: And Sroor says, mom, I'm sorry. Even if you don't agree, I'm going. It just was not negotiable.

WARNER: The way Sroor saw it, all her life, she'd seen various rulers taking over Mosul and not helping people. She was done waiting, she said. People would criticize her for this impatience. They said that she tampered with evidence of war crimes, that she should leave ISIS bodies to the military. Sroor didn't care. She'd post messages on Facebook showing her team and saying things like...

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) We witnessed ISIS harming us while they were alive, and it's ridiculous to let ISIS keep harming us when they're dead.

ARRAF: So Sroor started gathering volunteers. There was one girl - she was 18, still in high school.

Can you say your name?

MANAR: Manar.

WARNER: And we're just using her first name? Or...

ARRAF: Yeah. Manar did not want her full name to be used because her parents didn't know that she had gone out collecting bodies.

MANAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: So Manar describes these grisly details like, it's hot, and the smell is almost unbearable. And the dead flesh is falling away in her hand.

MANAR: (Through interpreter) The flesh will fall off.

ARRAF: At one point, she wiped her hand on her pants, which Sroor told her was dangerous. And then she was scared to touch her own cell phone and get it infected. I mean, she'd never done anything like this before. But on the other hand, she talks about the team spirit...

MANAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: ...And how, after picking up bodies, they ate lunch together and listened to music.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: She was surprised that a woman would lead a team - all-male team.

ARRAF: So part of the camaraderie is it's a bunch of guys, right? It's just her and Sroor and a bunch of guys. And, you know, there's nothing illicit about it, but it's something that a lot of people wouldn't approve of.

MANAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: At one point, the guys that she's working with joke with her that she's not allowed to touch the bodies because they're men.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Making fun that she's not allowed to carry the corpses.

ARRAF: And she seems to find this delightfully absurd.

MANAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: You know, these would've been the men who were telling her she can't go outside until she's entirely covered all the way down to her fingertips. And there she was, with those same hands, picking up their bodies.

WARNER: Part of what gave Sroor the courage to lead her team out into the rubble each day is that she wasn't the only one there. She could look out and see other young people doing things to help rebuild. Sometimes it felt to her like the only people doing anything out here were people her age, not the government. That gave Sroor a sense of freedom, a freedom that some looked up to but others thought would get her in big trouble.

You remember that supermarket video that we started the episode with, made by a guy named Safwan? He was celebrating this very tiny act of just picking up a water bottle. Well, Safwan is also out here. He's part of this volunteerism movement going on in Mosul.

ARRAF: So you were explaining - today you're laying water pipes. Is that what you're doing - you're fixing the pipes?

MADANI: Yeah. All these houses - the water will come back to them.

WARNER: But whereas Sroor has news stories written about her and she's very out front, she's got her name on T-shirts, Safwan is a lot quieter.

MADANI: Yeah.

WARNER: He is trying to do something that he has not wanted the government to know anything about.

ARRAF: 'Cause Iraq is still the kind of place where if you get in somebody's way - particularly if there's money involved - you know, something bad could happen to your family.

MADANI: OK.

ARRAF: So we're out with Safwan in the Old City. And he's walking down this kind of half-destroyed main street.

How old do you think these houses are?

MADANI: (Speaking Arabic). It's maybe 150 years.

ARRAF: So we follow him as he goes down these little alleys.

MADANI: Here and...

ARRAF: And he shows us where...

MADANI: ...Go there and...

ARRAF: ...They could put a pipe here, a valve there, where they could reconstruct the water system.

MADANI: Reconnect that pipes.

ARRAF: The streets where water has come back - they have children playing. And the kids are clean, and they're going to school. The streets where the water hasn't come back - those are the most desperate ones.

Are those holes from shrapnel or bullets?

MADANI: I think it's a mortar. Yeah, it's a mortar. Yeah. What's - we'll fix it by welding or replacement.

ARRAF: And they're trying to do what an entire city water department hasn't been able to do.

MADANI: Corruption is - exists in all these departments.

ARRAF: He hasn't actually told the government what he's doing because he's worried they'll shut him down. But now he needs them. He needs them to turn the water on to send the water through these pipes that he's been fixing. So he tries what he calls...

MADANI: Experiment.

ARRAF: ...An experiment. He gets the number of the water director for the west side and calls him on his cell phone - 'cause you can do that in Iraq. And the guy actually answers the phone and says, yeah, I've heard of you.

WARNER: He says, I've heard of you?

ARRAF: Yeah, he's heard of Safwan.

WARNER: They saw his Facebook updates.

ARRAF: So they meet the next day, and they talk, engineer to engineer. And the water ministry engineer shows Safwan the maps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I will give you map, OK?

MADANI: Thank you.

ARRAF: Because up until then, Safwan hasn't seen the maps of how all the pipes are connected. So he's basically been guessing. And a couple of days later, they turn a valve and bring water to hundreds of homes.

MADANI: Just - I cannot describe this feeling. I think I am luckiest guy in Mosul now when you see that water flowing inside each house.

WARNER: That relationship of citizen to government - people noticing a problem, starting to solve it and getting the government to pitch in - that was not something that Jane had ever seen in Mosul.

ARRAF: This actually is something new - essentially, the power of people.

WARNER: And how do you feel about that?

ARRAF: Feel it's an amazing thing. And if it could work, that could actually - I know this sounds grandiose - save the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Arabic).

WARNER: When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns, one phone call puts that power to the test.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. Getting people to come out, day after day, to drag dead bodies through the rubble in the 100-degree heat - it wasn't easy. So Sroor was glad that people knew what she was up to. It was good for recruitment. Every time a reporter wanted to follow her around, she said yes. And she said yes when she got a call from a show called "Shabab Talk." It's on the program Deutsche Welle. It airs in a number of Arab countries. And they sent in a camera crew to film her team collecting bodies. And then she's invited to a live taping...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: ...On the campus of the university that ISIS destroyed. So picture a town-hall-style, live audience in a circle of plastic chairs - totally normal - except the backdrop is this bombed-out building with exposed rusted rebar.

ARRAF: I mean, it had really had the feeling that they were trying to say, hey, we are in a war-torn country.

WARNER: Instead of a chair for her to sit on, it's three sandbags stacked up on top of each other.

ARRAF: And then the table was this makeshift thing set up on jagged, like, concrete blocks. I mean, it's not that hard to find a table in Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

JAAFAR ABDUL KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: Out comes the curly-haired, handsome host, Jaafar Abdul Karim. And he introduces Sroor...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

HUSSEINI: (Speaking Arabic).

(APPLAUSE)

WARNER: ...And another activist, and across from them, the governor of this whole province of 3 million people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

(APPLAUSE)

ARRAF: Governor Nofal al-Akoub - he's a big man with a shaved head and these piercing eyes.

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Honestly, when I first heard that they wanted to hear my story, I thought that they were going to thank me or give me a certificate of appreciation.

WARNER: The host asks the governor the first question. What is he doing about the corpses in Mosul? And the governor gives this bland, political answer. And then the host says he was out there for five hours with Sroor in the field, and he didn't see anyone from the governor's team. He's challenging him. The governor challenges him back. He says, who are you to be out there for five minutes and think you know something about Mosul? There's no bodies out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

NOFAL AL-AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: Sroor realizes not only is she not getting a certificate of appreciation, the governor doesn't even seem to know who she is or what she does. And even worse, he's claiming there are no bodies. So when he says, who are you to be out there for five minutes, Sroor grabs the mic. And she says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Sir, is six months enough for you?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The governor stares at her in his shiny suit and his green tie - looks like an angry school principal, but a principal with a police force. Sroor looks even tinier than usual in her paisley headscarf with this big foam microphone. And he says, who gave you authority to pick up bodies in the Old City, which is actually a question that Sroor had a good answer to. She had told city hall she was there and the department of health and government security forces. But Sroor doesn't say any of that - not until later in the show when it won't matter anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

HUSSEINI: (Through interpreter) Sir, I've been moving bodies for six months. Our team is 30 people. So for six months, 30 people are going in and out every single day, and you didn't even know we were there. That's bad management on your side.

(APPLAUSE)

WARNER: The governor says, if I saw you out there, I would've chucked you in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: The host says, please, use respectful language on my show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: The governor says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHABAB TALK")

AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: ..."I don't care if the bodies of ISIS fighters are eaten by dogs. Is Sroor an ISIS sympathizer?" And this will all plant the seeds of the media and social media campaign that the governor's allies will wage against her.

ARRAF: And then the governor says, this discussion is over. And that lady - she'll sit in her place. And if it seemed like that TV taping was tense, I mean, she was certainly in for a lot more trouble.

WARNER: Months after the show...

AKOUB: (Laughter).

ARRAF: We go back to the governor, and we see him at home. He has his vehicles running, his security detail waiting for him. But then, as soon as I mention the name Sroor, he sits back down, and he starts smoking.

AKOUB: Now, Sroor make a very big problem.

ARRAF: And it is clear that he has things he wants to say about Sroor.

AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: And he's ordered the military to investigate Sroor. And he keeps saying...

AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: ..."This is not her work." And he also says, "And she didn't ask me for permission."

AKOUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: So then he says, "Now there's an arrest warrant against her." And then he, like, wipes his hands of her.

WARNER: And just like that, Sroor's team is banned from working in Mosul.

ARRAF: So when we're talking about meeting the water guy...

MADANI: Yeah.

WARNER: And meanwhile, Safwan, who had quietly figured out a way to work with the government to get water to hundreds of homes...

MADANI: But when you came for this story, I was thinking, what I - what if I cooperate with official department? I do that. This was experiment. I don't do that again.

WARNER: He tells Jane about something that happened just before the guy from the water ministry turned on that valve.

ARRAF: The guy shows up. And Safwan's plumber - the plumber's name is Zahar. And he had just been to the bird market. People there have pigeons as a hobby. They're homing pigeons, and some of these pigeons can be quite expensive. But he had bought two pigeons, and he had them in the cage. And the water ministry guy says to Zahar...

MADANI: He said to him...

ARRAF: ...Hey, those are nice pigeons.

MADANI: ...Oh, these lovely two birds.

ARRAF: Because that's the way you ask for a bribe.

MADANI: He mean, give me that.

ARRAF: So he gave him the two pigeons. And the water ministry guy turned the valve on, and the water flowed. And Safwan is furious.

MADANI: How can I talk against corruption and I cooperate, you know? I cannot do that.

ARRAF: He says, Zahar, you shouldn't have given him the pigeons. But if Zahar didn't give him the pigeons, he wouldn't have turned on the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: Could you do more if you said, OK, I'm going to - it's OK that they're a little bit corrupt - I'm going to work with them?

MADANI: But this mean more in their pockets.

ARRAF: Safwan explains, yeah, he wants to repair those pipes, and he needs the government to help do it faster. But there's actually something more fundamental about Mosul that he wants to fix, something that runs even deeper than the pipes under the ground. He says he wants it to be strange to think first about your own pockets and not about the common good.

MADANI: I want to be strange when someone don't help people.

ARRAF: What they're up against is so immense that you have to really ask, are they going to be able to survive?

Testing. So I went to see the Iraqi army general who the governor had ordered to investigate Sroor.

So can I ask you first...

His name is General Najim al-Jubouri. And I expected him to be fairly suspicious of Sroor. I mean, this is a guy who investigated her over a series of days.

So she was picking up bodies, right? And then the governor told her she couldn't do that anymore. She was doing a bad thing. What did you think of what she was doing?

NAJIM AL-JUBOURI: I think she did very great job.

ARRAF: At the end of it, he realizes she is who she says she is.

AL-JUBOURI: Oh, I respect her and I...

ARRAF: He says he also believes in this volunteer movement.

AL-JUBOURI: They help the people. They clean the roads. I encourage her.

ARRAF: He was a general, actually, in Saddam Hussein's army before 2003. But he'd never been out of the country. And he says he used to stand at the border and look across and think, I wonder if it's different there, outside Iraq.

AL-JUBOURI: I told the governor, we need an effort here in the city. We need the youth effort to help the people, to give them hope.

ARRAF: And he says, if the governor ordered us to arrest her, we'd ignore it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is where we were going to end this episode - in this transitional moment with Mosul destroyed but not yet rebuilt; Saror sidelined but oddly protected, and Safwan striking out on his own but still worried he could be shut down by powerful interests and this whole hopeful movement in limbo. At least, that's how we were going to end this episode. And then Jane called us up with some recent news.

ARRAF: Yeah, yeah. It was big news. It was on this beautiful spring day, a national holiday, with all these families out at the amusement park and the river. And a boat sank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ELAINE QUIJANO: Nearly 100 people are dead after a ferry capsized in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Iraqi families ready for a day of fun...

QUIJANO: Many of the victims were celebrating the Kurdish New Year and...

ARRAF: There was also video of the boat overturning, flipping over, and you could see these people bobbing in the water before they were carried away.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL JAZEERA BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Mosul emergency responders were overwhelmed. They lacked equipment and manpower - so desperate for assistance, they put out a call for volunteers. Two of those volunteers drowned while trying to recover more bodies from the water.

ARRAF: So the governor shows up at the site of the tragedy. And he's greeted by this crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Yelling) (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: These protesters, they're mostly young men. And they're holding signs saying, no to corruption. And they're screaming, you're all thieves. The governor gets into his vehicle. And he tries to drive away, but people are throwing things at him. They're throwing bottles of water and bricks. And the bricks shatter his window. And as he frantically tries to drive away, he actually runs into two people. He, like, injured a cameraman and an activist. And that was the catalyst for something that was also very rare. The governor is removed by Parliament - an actual act of Parliament. An arrest warrant was issued for him.

WARNER: This is the governor, of course, who issued the arrest warrant, at one point, against Sroor. What does his departure then mean for this young movement?

ARRAF: For Sroor, for instance, she can do volunteer work in Mosul again. And this group of volunteers started a hashtag. And it basically translates as, we've started.

WARNER: Oh, we started something. Like, the governor's out.

ARRAF: We're on our way. We have a voice. And they called for people in Mosul to come out and clean the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: It wasn't just volunteers who came out though. It's people who wouldn't have dreamed of coming out to clean the streets. It's members of Parliament. It's officials. It's the military because you know what? Now volunteering is kind of cool.

WARNER: In one of the cell phone videos from this day of cleaning the streets, you see somebody from city hall giving an impromptu interview, saying...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: ..."We realized that people are eager for this kind of effort because", he says, "people love their city."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Today's show was field produced by Michael May and mixed by Mitchell Johnson. Jess Jiang produces ROUGH TRANSLATION. Marianne McCune is our editor. Thanks to Sangar Khaleel, Mohamed Masoud, Furat al-Jamil, Qintara Cultural Center, Fahad Sabah Book Forum Cafe, the Make It More Beautiful organization and Vice News. Video of the governor fleeing was filmed by Mosul photographer and fellow volunteer Ali al-Baroodi.

Thanks also to Larry Kaplow, Meghan Keane, Sana Krasikov, Quil Lawrence, Andy Mills, Alec Cowan, and to our interpreters and translators - Noor Wazwaz, Ahmed Abu Hamda, Ameen al-Jaleeli, Baraa Ktiri and Ali al naemi. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. Sarah Knight fact-checked this episode. Our theme was composed by John Ellis, mastering by Andy Huether.

If you would like more stories like this in your podcast feed, rate us and review on Apple podcasts. And tell people about our new season that just launched. Find us on Twitter at @roughly or on email at roughtranslation@npr.org. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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