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A Look Back At Moments Of Devastation And Hope In Mideast


We are marking a transition today. Jane Arraf is leaving NPR. She has reported from Iraq, Egypt and other parts of the Mideast for NPR since 2016. She started covering the region as a journalist in the 1990s, and she's going to keep telling these stories in her new role as the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. But before she goes, we've asked her to join us for a step back to revisit some of the most memorable pieces that she has brought to our air. And Jane is in Amman, Jordan.

Hi, Jane. I'm so sorry to see you go.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I am, too, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know, you have told so many specific stories over the years that have often revolved around one big story, which is the rise and fall of ISIS, especially in Iraq. And you have brought us the voices of resilient survivors, dogged fighters, people who are reshaping the region after ISIS is gone. As you look back today, what stands out most to you?

ARRAF: So there was that incredible saga of watching ISIS take over large parts of Iraq and Syria. And the forces that were supposed to protect civilians basically retreated or ran away. Then when the battle for Mosul came, it was the fiercest fighting that anyone had seen in years. And when it was over, we documented at least 5,000 civilians killed, more than the number of ISIS fighters. There were also thousands of Iraqi troops killed fighting for Mosul.

I had never seen such devastation. It was absolutely flattened in some parts of the historic old city. And so we went out - myself and our local producer, Sangar Khaleel (ph) - and we went out with civilians who were trying to find the bodies of their family members, most of them crushed to death when buildings were hit by airstrikes. This was 2017. One of them was a vegetable seller named Bashar Abdul Jabar.


BASHAR ABDUL JABAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "I come, and I go. And I come, and I go," he says. "I have no house, no money."

JABAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He says he's not crying for his son. He's crying over the disaster that has befallen everyone. The workers get out shovels, and they start to dig.

SHAPIRO: Out of that rubble and misery in Mosul, you have chronicled life coming back to the city and rays of hope. Tell us about what you've seen.

ARRAF: So you had this incredible fighting, this incredible tragedy of parts of a city being destroyed and thousands of civilians killed. And then nothing happened. The bodies of ISIS fighters were left to decompose for more than a year. The Iraqi government didn't come in to help, really, in a meaningful way. Instead, we saw young Iraqi volunteers, and they were picking up bodies and diffusing explosive suicide belts, restoring water to some of the neighborhoods.

And then a year after ISIS was defeated, they held a reading festival. And that sounds routine, but it was extraordinary because ISIS had banned most books and music and shut down most colleges. And it turned out when quite a lot of people had to stay at home under ISIS, they secretly read. We met a young premed student, Aboud Abdul Aziz, who spent the years teaching himself English at home, and his dream was to build a cancer hospital.


ABOUD ABDUL AZIZ: Your pain will be the best power to you when you use it to achieve your dream. I have many friends. We are right now just studying. And I told them that we end our college. We have to do something new to our city.

ARRAF: And then there's Safwan al-Madany, an engineer who volunteers his time to help rebuild the old city. He loves this event.

SAFWAN AL-MADANY: Here you see your friends, see the books, see that songs and music, see everything related to life. It's opposite of ISIS, opposite of death, opposite of anything is bad.

ARRAF: So there were all these incredible people, and almost every one of them had suffered tragedy, but they were out there with that incredible resilience.

SHAPIRO: Beyond Mosul, another story that you followed closely was the genocide of Yazidis, this ancient religious minority that ISIS singled out as targets, enslaving thousands of people and killing thousands more. What's happening with the Yazidi people now?

ARRAF: They are still absolutely devastated. They weren't the only targets of ISIS, of course, but there were a small minority to begin with. And ISIS specifically set out to eradicate their religion. You'll remember that the U.S. got into war against ISIS to try to protect Yazidis who fled to Sinjar Mountain, but still, 6,000 of them were taken captive. And of those, there are 3,000 still missing, and people can't even really properly bury their dead.

Last year we went to a village called Kocho, where almost the entire male population there was killed. They're commemorating the fifth anniversary of that genocide. They gathered at the mass graves, and the sound of it was absolutely haunting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: She's calling out the names and singing to her loved ones who have been buried here in this mass grave. This might be the saddest song in the whole world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: And that trauma isn't over, Ari. I mean, you see these people, and they're still desperately poor - the community from Sinjar. They have no money to rebuild homes or their lives. A lot of them are still in camps. They're dependent on food rations from aid agencies, and they're still traumatized.

SHAPIRO: Now, I mentioned that you've been covering the region since the 1990s, and you've been an NPR correspondent for the last four of those years. Is there anything in the last four years that changed your understanding of the region?

ARRAF: There are a couple of things that have really stood out against the backdrop of so many things happening in Iraq. I guess I've been surprised at the capacity for bad government. I've been absolutely astounded by the courage of young people who have come out in these protests from Basra to Baghdad, literally risking their lives to demand not just water and electricity, but a homeland that they can be proud of, one that treats them like actual citizens.


ARRAF: A young woman in a white medic's coat, a volunteer, is running from the tear gas. She doesn't want to give her name. She says the Iraqi government doesn't care about the more than 600 protesters killed, the 20,000 injured.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) They don't care about our generation. They don't care about our youth. Don't think we'll stop. Enough.

ARRAF: And that's really the thing, I suppose, that keeps drawing me back to Iraq and the thread that I see in a lot of these stories. It's that incredible resilience against all the odds, against the backdrop of so much tragedy that's so hard for so many of us to even imagine, against the backdrop of neglect by not just their own governments, but a world that seems to have forgotten them - that these people still have the courage to hope and to go out and do something to try to make their lives better.

SHAPIRO: That is our outgoing correspondent Jane Arraf.

Thank you for all of your reporting over the years.

ARRAF: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "FANSHAWE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.