Mosul’s children and the lasting scars of conflict

Publication: The New Arab

MOSUL, Iraq- Mohammed was only 11 years old when he saw how two men were beheaded by Islamic State militants. It was at one of the many IS checkpoints in the city of Mosul, where Mohammed and his friends were hanging out.

“The sword went up. Walk away now, I told myself, but I felt paralysed. After the beheadings, I dizzily walked away, leaned over and puked up my breakfast,” said Mohammed, now 13.

Mosul's children and the lasting scars of conflictThe teenage boy and his family arrived a few months ago at Nargizlia, an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp northeast of Mosul. His father sat next to him in the tent, smoking one cigarette after another – under the terror group it was forbidden to smoke.

A warzone is not a place for civilians, let alone for the youngest. But the IDP camps near Mosul are filled with children and teenagers who have lived under IS cruelty for years. They struggle with the consequences of traumatic experiences.

Living under IS was very difficult, Mohammed explained. Boys and men had to go to the mosque several times a day. “If you don’t come, we will beat you,” IS threatened. In the mosque, continued pressure was put on the younger generation to join IS as militants.

His father, once employed as a concierge at a school, didn’t let Mohammed go to school for years. “They [IS] often came to ask why I did not go to their school. My dad told them we were too poor to pay the school fees. But in reality, he didn’t want me to go to a school were children learn maths by using pictures of bombs and grenades,” Mohammed added.

Children in IS-held Mosul have endured violence, abuse 
and indoctrination [Brenda Stoter]

But no one could escape IS’ indoctrination.

Mohammed said IS displayed mass executions on large screens in the streets of Mosul.

At one point, Mohammed stayed in his home all day; he didn’t dare to go outside out of fear of being confronted with beheadings again. He started to avoid people and became isolated.

When he arrived at the camp with his family after fleeing Mosul, Mohammed was diagnosed with social phobia by child psychologist Bijar Abid Arif. “Mohammed refused to get out of the tent and didn’t even speak to other children. He was basically scared of everyone, including me,” said his father.

From bed-wetting and nightmares to social phobia and anxiety disorders: children in Mosul are in dire need of psychological support. Some children get better, and benefit from psychosocial activities or education in a child-friendly space. Other children need specialised care to overcome their trauma.

“Children who witnessed the death of a family member or children who were victim of a bombing often have a high level of trauma. They are scared of cars driving by, people wearing black – many things. Not all children will be able to overcome their traumatic experiences by themselves, especially when they have lived under IS for years, like the children in West Mosul. They have very shocking experiences no child has to go through,” said Martin Muhindi, Emergency Response Manager for War Child in Iraq.

“In addition, IS strategically tried to recruit children with violence. They are very cruel against children, comparable to Boko Haram.”

Maha, a 10-year-old girl from a town near West Mosul, always hides the left side of her face under a headscarf.

While fleeing the fighting a month ago, a mortar landed near her. Shrapnel hit her in the face, and blood ran down her cheeks. “My eyes, my eyes,” she screamed while running towards the Iraqi troops. When she finally reached safety, she was brought to a hospital, where the doctor told her that her left eye had to be removed.

The girl refuses to go to school in the camp. She feels ashamed.

“Children bully me because of my eye. They call me blind and laugh at me, even though I told them many times I got wounded by IS,” Maha said. “At home I had a lot of friends. Now I have no one. Life over here is terrible.”

The nights are the worst. In addition to the physical pain, Maha suffers from nightmares. In her dreams, she relives being under attack. Sometimes she dreams that IS catches her. She often wakes up drenched in sweat.

Maha lost her eye in a mortar attack [Brenda Stoter]

When asked if she wants to show her whole face for our photo, Maha started to cry.

“Then people will see that I lost my eye,” she sighed. But when her mother said how beautiful she is and proudly talked about her “smart little girl”, she changed her mind.

“I hope we can return home soon, so I can go to school again and become a doctor,” Maha said, and uncovered her left eye.

Since the battle of Mosul began eight months ago, more than 600,000 people fled their homes. Although many refugees, children included, return to the liberated areas of Mosul and went back to school, Muhindi is worried for the large group of Iraqi teenagers. They were constantly confronted with the ideology of IS.

Every young man who wants to enter the IDP camp is subjected to strict screenings by local authorities as a result.

But the problem is much bigger and more complex. “You can kill all IS fighters, but you cannot kill an ideology,” says Muhindi. “That is why you have to offer the youth a proper prospect for the future by offering them good education and jobs.

“This is not the task of the NGOs, because they will leave again, but a job for the local government. The youth need a sustainable alternative.”

What doesn’t help is the lack of mental health care services in Iraq. Civilians do not realise that they need care, or simply don’t talk about it. Luckily this is changing, albeit slowly.

When Abid Arif graduated a few years ago from the psychology department at the University of Duhok, he had trouble finding a job. Now he is working as a psychologist for War Child in several refugee camps.

Children too are often very reluctant towards psychologists. One day the psychologist heard about a 16-year-old Yazidi boy who escaped IS after they had forced him to fight. “I visited him in his family’s tent and explained that I wanted to help him. After that visit, I did not hear a word from him for ten days.”

Eventually the boy came to Abid Arif of his own accord.

“We played basketball together. He started to cry. ‘IS forced me to forget how fun this is,’ he told me. His traumas came flowing out,” said Abid Arif. “And after several sessions, he is doing a lot better now.”

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