The last major stand for ISIS in Iraq came in the place where the Islamic State declared its caliphate more than three years ago, Mosul. CBN News recently got an exclusive look at the city that was once Iraq's second largest and the epicenter of the self-declared Islamic State.
Iraqi National Police escorted CBN News into the area where the fight against ISIS was at its worst. They designated the area as a closed military zone since it's littered with unexploded ordnance, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and dead bodies. It was easy to see it will take a long time to fix what ISIS virtually destroyed.
This reporter described the scene like this:
"I'm standing in the center of Mosul right now and it really is an apocalyptic landscape. Everywhere you look you can see devastation and destruction. It's a bit eerie too because it's so quiet, it's like a ghost town. It's a closed military zone. We came in with an Iraqi escort. It also reminds me of what a European city would have looked like after World War II once it was bombed out. And as you look around you can see it's probably not going to take months or years, but maybe decades, to restore Mosul to what it once was."
We stood within a few yards from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the summer of 2014. Now that three-year dream lay in ruins, his fighters dead or gone.
Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer joined us in the heart of Mosul and shared his thoughts.
"What we're looking at here, this devastation that we can see around us is the price that it took to destroy that most vile of projects that was declared in this city in June of 2014 calling itself the Islamic State. This is the cost, this is the price, the destruction is what it took to turn that thing from a reality into just an idea again."
The geography of Mosul gives you some idea of where we stood. The famous Tigris River divides the eastern and western parts of the city. While we saw signs of life in east Mosul, west Mosul bore the brunt of the conflict. One report states more than 900,000 civilians died in the battle to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State, leaving a city in ruins in the attempt to save it.
We witnessed that devastation in a nearby church, a stark symbol of what ISIS sought to destroy. In Mosul alone, ISIS destroyed dozens of Christian churches and buildings. At one time, more than 10,000 Christian families called Mosul home. Today just a handful remain.
In another part of Mosul, this reporter stood in what used to be the center of St. Catharine's of Sienna church. ISIS had used the church and the convent for Dominican Sisters behind the church as one of its headquarters. Coalition forces targeted ISIS and obliterated the church and heavily damaged the convent.
Behind the church, an Iraqi soldier named Mohammad showed us unexploded mortar shells and other ordnances and explained, "After ISIS took over Mosul, they used this place as a headquarters of ISIS. They brought all the properties of people here and also they brought all the cars. They used it as a factory for weapons and bombs."
Yohanna Yousif with the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization told CBN News how heartbreaking it was to see the church and convent destroyed.
"I can't suppress of my feelings, of my sad feelings about that because I am comparing how it was before and now how is it and not the buildings, but the act of the Dominican sisters," she said.
Yousif says the Dominican Sisters served as light and salt to Mosul.
"You know this convent for all Christians in Mosul has big importance because the people of Mosul knows [sic] the Dominican sisters. They established many schools in Mosul, and all the people that are now in a good position in Iraq, they are graduated from these schools, in Mosul. For that, the Dominican sisters had a good reputation in Mosul."
His humanitarian organization provided food and relief to Sunni Muslims here when the city opened up.
"We were here when they bombed the minaret of Hadba. In the same day are distributing here foods for families and they asking us, 'we threatened you; we killed Christians and now you are helping us.' We didn't understand that. Mr. John, Dr. John from CSI, was with us. He told them, "That is the Christianity. They help. They love their enemies and you are not their enemies. Also, you are victims of ISIS also as Christians. For that, we are here to help you."
While much of Mosul lies in ruins, Yousif hopes for a better future.
"I hope that Mosul one day will become as it was before. That is my dream."