As holiday turns into tragedy, a call for urgent review of local and international reconstruction efforts in Mosul
March 21 marks the combined holidays of Nowruz and Mother’s Day in Iraq, celebrations of spring, renewal and life. Families go on picnics and nature outings. A special favorite of people from Mosul and the surrounding area is a visit to Mosul Tourist Island, with its nature park and attractions for children.
Instead, corruption, negligence, incompetence and complicity turned what should have been a joyous day into an unimaginable tragedy for many families, the city and country. Unfortunately, it’s likely an ominous sign of more disasters to come if immediate actions to ensure public safety are not taken.
In the afternoon of Thursday March 21, a cable ferry with a capacity of fifty and apparently made from a portion of an out-of-service military floating bridge was packed with 287 people, mostly children and their mothers intending to cross the Tigris River to the small island. The U.S. military gave equipment to the Iraqi security forces like floating bridges, which are usually fastened in a chain. On this day, the ferry was supposed to have been guided by cables on each side for what should have been a quick three-minute trip across the river.
The scenes that follow, however, are horrifying. Bystander videos show one of the cables break just after the ferry takes off, causing water to flood into one side. Because the base of the ferry appears to be part of something like these military floating bridges intended to be connected to other units rather than floating alone, it quickly rocks back and forth and then overturns completely. Those aboard are violently thrown from side to side and then directly into the fast-moving water from the vessel, which was not equipped with life jackets, buoys or rafts.
The currents were especially heavy as the gates to the Mosul Dam had been opened just days before the incident, sending torrents of water downstream and causing a higher than normal water level. The Mosul Dam Administration had informed Tourist Island’s operator that opening the gates could cause parts of the island to be submerged, and that it should be closed during this period. Apparently, his instruction was not heeded.
Most of the women and children aboard the capsized ferry couldn’t swim. Images painful to watch show them bouncing up and down as they tried to keep their heads above the water. The River Police that patrol the Tigris River do not usually travel with emergency evacuation and recovery equipment. The Fire Department arrived on the scene with limited ability to help, as their officers are not trained in water search and rescue operations, also couldn’t swim, and were without life vests or rafts. Further, the Iraqi military helicopter that was sent could not deploy its people on a rescue mission, as its propulsion further stirred the currents and only moved the drowning bodies, especially the small children, faster downstream. Instead, local fishermen who had boats on the river and knew the area’s intricacies, acted fast and rescued many people who were brought to nearby hospitals with various injuries. Around fifty persons were rescued this way. When they arrived, children were covered with blankets rather than being treated immediately, resulting in more deaths. The progressive deterioration of Iraq’s health system has been well documented, and hospitals are chronically short of supplies, medication, equipment, and qualified medical staff, especially in paediatric care. At least 100 people are confirmed dead, with many more missing and likely never to be found.
Mosul Tourist Island was opened after 2003 by private developers and is especially busy on holidays and weekends for its children’s amusement park, cafes and outdoor restaurants. It is the only recreational area in the city of its kind. Tourist Island remained operational under ISIS’ occupation of the city, and its owner paid substantial taxes to the group’s financial authorities. It suffered damage during the fighting, but was reopened in mid-2018 after reconstruction. Mosul’s Administration of Tourism has now informed the public that Tourist Island has never actually operated with a license. Apparently, there have been no inspections of its equipment––especially frightening as Tourist Island also operates a ferris wheel beloved by children––and no safety training for its staff. Local Kurdish police are reported to have arrested the island’s operator allegedly trying to flee Mosul for the nearby northern city of Duhok, and additional arrests in the incident have also been reported.
The tragedy has galvanized and enraged the public for its emotive scenes of drowning children and their mothers. Mosul residents converged in protests at the site of the deadly incident on Friday demanding answers, an investigation, and denouncing Iraq’s endemic corruption. In recent days, eight reconstructed bridges connecting the banks of the Tigris River and other locations collapsed in the city! Rebuilt roads have also buckled and sunk under the seasonal rains. Iraq’s president, prime minister and parliamentary spokesman made emergency visits to Mosul on Friday, with Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi briefly meeting with victims in the hospital. When the governor of Nineveh Nofal Al-Akoub––widely viewed as corrupt and using reconstruction projects for personal benefit––arrived at the scene of the protests, his luxury car was pelted. The Range Rover even appeared to intentionally hit a young journalist, Laith Al Rashidi, whose injuries were so severe he was evacuated to the hospital, and another bystander. The governor has since been removed from his post, although that was rumoured well before this incident. The government convoy caused further traffic chaos and danger in the city, as there was only one functioning bridge across the river after the others fell!
Sadly, a member of Mosul Eye’s team was also caught up in the disaster. Aya’s mother, sister and baby brother were all killed, while she and her sister suffered injuries and were rescued. Aya’s unbearable loss is shared by all of us as she tries to recover her life and look to the future. There must be more to offer Mosul’s young generation than this!
The UNDP, European Commission, USAID and other international donors are funding many Mosul reconstruction projects, but questions must be raised as to how these funds are being allocated to the government and implemented on-site. What are the international donors’ mechanisms of project oversight in Mosul, and how can taxpayers in faraway capitals ensure their funds are being used to actually support reconstruction and development in Iraq, rather than more corruption and projects that endanger the public?
In response to the March 21 ferry disaster, Mosul Eye calls for the following:
1. An independent and transparent investigation of the March 21, 2019 ferry tragedy and the bringing of all guilty persons and their accomplices to justice
2. Immediate safety inspections based on standards of internationally recognized accreditation bodies in construction of all reconstruction projects in the city (roads, bridges, water, sanitation, energy/electricity, schools and hospitals) as well as newly established private sector public-use establishments (shopping malls, recreational centers, etc.)
3. A public explanation of the government’s business licensing practices, especially those for recreational establishments like Tourist Island, as well as public health and safety inspection procedures
4. For international donors: A public release of your sponsorship of reconstruction and development projects in the city and an inquiry whether international donor funds were used to support Mosul Tourist Island’s reconstruction and, if so, how this project was implemented locally
5. For UN agencies and iNGOs working in the city: To review and make public your procedures for safeguarding reconstruction and development funds from supporting corruption, protection rackets, extortion and armed groups, and an explanation of how your organizations implement projects in the city
6. To know which government authority is responsible for training and equipping civil protection units in search and rescue operations on land and water and why this has apparently not been achieved in Mosul/Nineveh
7. As the cable ferry appears likely to have actually been made from a portioned off out-of-use “military floating bridge”, a public accounting of how military-grade equipment reaches the private sector. Who in the Iraqi military has the authority to sell such equipment to the private entities and what laws regulate this?
8. Support to the March 21 ferry tragedy victims and their families of all medical-related costs, including long-term physical therapy and trauma counselling as needed
The 287 innocent people who boarded that ferry, many of them small children and mothers seeking only to celebrate a holiday together outdoors, the injured and the dead, and their grieving families deserve accountability and transparency. So to do the city’s residents and all Iraqis. Actions, not words, are urgently required to ensure public safety during this critical reconstruction period.