Stabilisation: Jim Sawatzky & Hugo de Vries

"On The Line" Podcast Series, Episode 1


You can listen to this interview and future episodes of “On the Line” on Apple Podcasts, BuzzsproutSpotifyStitcheriHeart RadioTuneIn & Alexa.


Nancy. Today we have Hugo De Vries and Jim Sawatzky on the line. Hugo and Jim are specialists with the UNDP, that is the United Nations’ Development programme, working to stabilise liberated areas in Iraq. Both based in Mosul, Hugo focuses on the west and Jim concentrates his efforts on the east. We’re excited to have them here to discuss their experiences working on stabilisation projects in Mosul and to offer their insight about what can be done to rehabilitate areas formally held by Daesh.

Nancy. Thank you both for giving us the opportunity to chat over your work in Mosul. I think my first question to both of you is what does an average day look like you?

Jim. It’s a two-part question in the sense that, it depends on which day. Typically for us two days a week we’re in the field, visiting project sites in Mosul either East or West and then the other two or three days are here in the office. Typically, on a field day, on any mine missions for example we’re visiting project sites, usually in the order of 10 perhaps 12 project sites. Just following the projects on the individual sites, issues with the contractors, we usually meet with our supervision Engineer on site as well in addition to our quality control quality insurance Engineer.

19 April 2018 Mosul, Iraq,  Al Shifa hospital in East Mosul, which is being rehabilitated with the support of UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS).
© UNDP Iraq / Claire Thomas

Hugo. For me, it’s roughly similar. A lot of the things we do in the field is verification on the ground to make sure that the work is implemented as it should. We spend a lot of time with what we call the End Tutor as well, the Line Director, the Iraqi Ministries on the ground. For me, to add to that, I run a very large housing rehabilitation programme which is starting to take up more and more of my time and it also means that I spend a lot of time in the neighbourhoods, particularly in the Old City talking to the beneficiaries directly. We’re looking at the rehabilitation of 15,000 houses right now and what you very often see is that the moment one of us shows up there’s a lot of people in the neighbourhood who come to ask about the quality of the work, if their house can be added or not.

Nancy. So, Hugo, you mentioned this housing project that you have in the West of Mosul, and a lot of questions come into the Coalition about this specific housing project, either from Iraqis on the ground asking about the processes, asking about how it is you go about finding contractors, asking about who the contractors are. Are they locals, are they international companies? Could you talk about that some more please?

Hugo. To begin with, 95% of all the contracts that we undertake under the stabilisation programme are done by Iraqi contractors. This was a very purposeful choice, agreed upon by the government and the donors, to particularly keep all the money in the community and not have it go abroad. But also, because it leads to a much faster rate of implementation. How it works for the housing, is that when we started this programme, we sat together with the government authorities in Mosul and with the shelter cluster to pick out the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in Western Mosul. As you know, particularly because of all the bombing during the liberation of the city, the damage is extreme, so we need to pick and choose. So, we picked neighbourhoods across the city, not only the Old City but also in the areas that were perhaps less served base on vulnerability levels, based on levels of damage, based on all of these issues.

Nancy. At any point did you look into the differences between the ethnicities or characteristics of each [neighbourhood].

Hugo. No, we very purposefully didn’t do that. To begin with, West Mosul, aside from the tribal differences between the various groups, is almost entirely Sunni Arab. There were a couple of Christians there as well but they all left when Daesh came. What we did is we based the selection as much as possible on a couple of very concrete, simple criteria. The first is that a house needs to be less than 60% damaged. Secondly, the house has to be damaged by acts of war or terrorism, not because it’s old or anything like that. A then we selected a number of neighbourhoods because we can’t do every neighbourhood in West Mosul. If your house fits those two criteria, we can help repair it. What we then do is a vulnerability assessment, so we’ll do all these houses, but the vulnerable families get helped first. We’re talking about widows, female headed households, households headed by a minor which actually happens quite a bit, handicapped people etc.

Nancy. So, these houses actually belong to people who remained in the city and not necessarily returning IDPs?

Hugo. No, it’s a mix. So we’ve been doing this for quite a while now and during that period a lot of people have come back. What usually happens is that when we go into a neighbourhood, we organise the work with the Mukhtar, with the local neighbourhood authorities and with the Imams and all the others. What we do is that we clearly give a message to people in the neighbourhood, saying between this week and that week we are going to look into these housing blocks. At that moment, people start calling their neighbours. So these can be people living in East Mosul, they can be living in a camp etc. They come to the city allow us to enter their house and do the assessment. Every assessment is signed off by the homeowner, these are not public structures they’re private structures. So we only do what the homeowner allows us to do. So it’s a very mixed bag of people. By now, the vast majority of people whose houses we’re repairing are either living in their house or are renting in East Mosul and will come back as soon as the repair work on their house is finished.

Nancy. Let’s move to Jim. Jim, I have a question regarding stabilisation projects that have already been completed. Now the UNDP comes in and works on a project, it finalises it, it hands it over to the authorities in place. 6 months down the line, or a year down the line, there are operational issues for instance, something appears in a paper or you get complaints. Does the UNDP gave control on that, or does it remain in the hands of the relevant authorities?

Jim. So there’s two aspects of this question. If it’s related to the rehabilitation of the structure, for example there’s a quality issues – maybe a component has broken or something along these lines – there’s a year warranty by the contractor to repair it. So we essentially hold back about 10% of the contract value to cover that period and then when that one year is done, that warrantee period has expired, then that 10% returns back to the contractors. The expectation is for him to repair those defective items. Those are reported often by the end user to us. The second component to your question is, if it’s related to the operation and maintenance of that particular structure, we do not get involved in that. The expectation falls on the government to be able to maintain and operate that facility.

Nancy. Is there any other UN agency that would be helping out in terms of operational issues? Such as the running of a hospital, or the running of a water sanitation or a power plant?

Hugo. There are a couple of specialised NGOs and other organisations in particular who do that. For example, the stabilisation programme really focuses on the bricks and mortar – the hospitals, the buildings, the structures, the equipment. For the running of hospitals, for example, organisations like ICRC and MSF provide running support – interims of putting doctors there, providing medication etc etc. But that’s not really something we do. UNICEF, for example, provide support for all the schools we rebuild, sometimes providing furniture, definitely providing school books, providing teacher training etc.

30 August 2018 – Mosul – Iraq – UNDP engineers visit Gharbiya School in West Mosul.
Work is underway to rehabilitate the school with the support of UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS).
© UNDP Iraq / Claire Thomas

Nancy. I think this question is for both of you, what are the major differences between West and East Mosul? Either in terms of the landscape? Or even in dealing with the locals at a very community level? Are there major differences?

Jim. Certainly there are. One of the key things that differentiate East from West is the level of destruction. I think I can summarise that as in the East there was very precise, pinpointed targeting from the Coalition with respect to facilities that were occupied by Daesh. Government warehouses, for example, were being used to manufacture various weapons and what have you. These got extensively targeted and destroyed. Whereas in the West you have entire neighbourhood that are essentially levelled. We didn’t have that kind of destruction in East Mosul. But we did have a lot of government facilities, police stations for example, government warehouses these steel structures that could be used to conceal vehicles and such, those suffered heavily in East Mosul.

Hugo. What is an interesting difference between East and West Mosul to bring up  in terms of the work with the community is that there is, I found, a bit of a mistrust in West Mosul towards international intentions. I think this has to do with people in West Mosul saying why is there so much more support to East Mosul than to West Mosul which is actually not the case. What happened was that West Mosul got liberated a lot later, East Mosul was liberated at the beginning of 2017 and it took until July of that year to liberate West Mosul. It took longer to liberate, the damage was much more extensive, the explosive hazards across the city and the difficulty of working if you have to basically move tonnes and tonnes of rubble before you can even get into the streets to assess schools and everything. All of this was so much bigger, the damage was much bigger which means that rehabilitation projects take longer. But if you look at the budget spent it’s almost the same. So people have the idea that less is moving in West Mosul but honestly that is purely a perception.

Nancy. We see a lot of videos coming out for the old town in West Mosul, especially in the Souq area, with all the sweets and during Ramadan and it was a beautiful scene because we saw lots of tradesman in their shops and pop stores and it was quite lively and people were very optimistic. Is that the sense you’re getting on ground when you’re there?

Hugo. I think it’s a mixed bag. East Mosul to me is a bit of a different situation, it’s a booming city in many ways – traffic jams, markets, people going to work if they have a job etc. That’s all moving. West Mosul is picking up a lot as well. The Maslawis are incredible resilient people who’ve rebuilt their homes, their shops etc by themselves as well, so there’s certainly a sense of optimism there. At the same time there are also concerns by Maslawis first about the enormous lack of jobs, unemployment is rampant across the city and that’s a major issue. Students graduate from universities with no opportunities to get a job later on. Secondly, there is still the concern with a lot of Maslawis as well about making sure that the government provides enough public funds to the city and basically puts its money where its mouth is. The Iraqi government got a lot of credit from Maslawis for the liberation of the city, but that will only remain if Maslawis seem that there are public funds going to public projects that benefit the whole city. So, there is still a sense of mistrust towards the government here and there as well. I think the government in Baghdad is doing its best to work on that, but I think the expectations of Maslawis are quite high.

Jim. And I think just to speak to your point about the celebratory mood during just after Ramadan, Eid Al-Fatir, people out in the Sooqs, it does speak to the level of commerce and trade that has been restored particularly in East Mosul. Over the last two and a half year for example, the citizens, the Maslawis, they weren’t waiting for any handout, they were just getting on with what needed to be done to restore their business to start moving forward. The first kinds of businesses, for example, were construction related businesses, the selling of PVC pipes and fixtures for your wash rooms and cement and that kind of thing. Then gradually you saw the increase of restaurants for example and it’s now to the point in East Mosul where you have grid-lock in the city, massive waits to move down the streets because there’s just so much volume of traffic. So I do think there has been a substantial return in terms of commerce and economic development in particular in East Mosul.

Hugo. A very clear indicator for West Mosul in particular is how busy the bridges are. So the bridges across the Tigris, there are a couple of emergency bridges and they’ve put a temporary bailey bridge on them. In the past, you could just cruise over them, right now you have very long traffic jams to get into West Mosul., which also just shows you that people are returning.

Nancy. I think this all sounds very promising and for people and for people like us that live abroad, the people of Mosul are historically known as people of trade and commerce and industry, so to know how they’ve bounced back after all this is really, really promising.

I want to go back to the projects. How do you prioritise these projects?

Hugo. Particularly in the beginning the focus was very much on the most important basic services for the city which were water, as a first priority, electricity and health. These were always are key priorities and the houses came later. We worked on an enormous amount of schools as well, but particularly in the beginning we focused on things that at that moment the stabilisation programme had the capacity and the boots on the ground to do. In particular these were the water treatment plants and the electrical substations. These are big, expensive projects that very few other international partners, or back then the government, had the capacity to do. Moving forward right now, our emphasis is very much on housing in West Mosul, on hospitals in both East and West Mosul, and on university institutions in East Mosul, if I’m not mistaken.

Nancy. And are you also involved in the UNESCO projects, the cultural projects? The religious sites, the historic sites? Are you working on those as well?

 Hugo. UNDP doesn’t have a mandate to work on religious buildings so we never did mosques for example or anything like that. Frankly UNESCO is much better than we are at that as well. What we’ve done in the Old City, we worked with UNESCO to make sure that the houses we rehabilitate look as closely as possible as they used to. So we don’t use gypsum or other materials that were not historically there, we don’t put plastic doors into marble archways, even though quite a few people would love to have a plastic door there. We follow the lines we get from UNESCO to rehabilitate house for example, otherwise the historical churches and mosques that’s them and not us.

Nancy. So for the listeners a lot of work is being done on these historical sites and a lot of Coalition partners are interested in helping Iraq work on these projects, but it happens to different agencies and that’s what you always need to keep in mind. So, gentlemen, I’m going to ask you the last question. In 20 years-time, when you look back at your period in Iraq, what is the thing that you’re going to take from this, what is the thing that you’re going to remember the most?

Jim. I think for me I’ll remember two things, one is the resilience and the ingenuity of the Iraqi people. The example I would use here is in the early days of February 2017 we visited a water treatment plant, it was the first one, it was multi-agency, and Daesh was still active across the Tigris in West Mosul. And one thing that very much inspired me is, despite the destruction in this water treatment plant Al-Qasour water treatement plant were a demolition charge was put on the main water main, and they flooded the pump room, which rendered the entire water treatment plant pretty much useless. But what we saw during this visit was a few labourers had disconnected the motors, hauled them out of the water and were drying them with propane torches. Separating the arbour from the windings and they were just cobbering together with whatever they had to try and get this facility pushing water. I was just struck by this. The second thing I think I will take away from this is the strong team comradery within the stabilisation team, a mix of international and national staff, and in terms of trying to meet the demand, the speed and scale of this team that has been cobbled together to implement stabilisation and just how well that is functioning and how well we get along together.

23 November 2017 Mosul  Iraq  Jim Sawatzky meets contractors working on Jamila Bridge in East Mosul.
The bridge, which connects Al Muthana neighborhood with Al Zuhoor neighborhood, was destroyed by ISIL. UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS) is supporting the Government of Iraq in rehabilitating the bridge in order to reconnect the two neighborhoods.
© UNDP Iraq / Claire Thomas

Hugo. Yes, I think resilience for sure. Particularly for West Mosul.  I’ve been here since March 2017 and we started doing the assessments already when Daesh was still holding the Old City so we came here right behind the front line and we had, for example, one water treatment plant where we’d done the whole assessment, started procurement and a week after Daesh tried to break out of the encirclement, went passed the water treatment plant, peppered it with bullets and shells and whatever and a week later the people of the water directory were calling us saying ‘get in the cars, we’re going back in, we’re going to do the whole assessment, going to re-precure’, and a week later the dead bodies were still lying outside the plant, we went in, we did it and there was a real push from the local authorities as well, they wanted to fix their city. Maslawis, they really love their city and they really want to see it prepared and that kind of commitment is very moving. On a personal level to me, what I’m taking away from this is the housing programme very much. I’ve been fortunate in. I’ve been to dozens and dozens of Maslawi homes now doing these houses, meeting with people and hearing the most God awful horror stories about what they’ve gone through during Daesh and during the liberation, and to see and to help people rebuild their home and to see them have a bit more hope in the future is very, very rewarding and moving.

Nancy. Did they offer you the black lemon tea that they offer people at meetings?

Hugo. Oh my God, we’ve all started having tea without sugar now because you get about 25 cups of tea per day so unless you want to go through a bag of sugar each day. And very often homemade cookies as well.

Nancy. That’s so generous, honestly. Thank you both gentlemen for your time and for the effort you are putting in to this.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience, We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More