Ghosts of Mosul stalk Iraq’s fleeing children
Hasan Sham Camp - The children proudly wield donated plastic water bottles like freshly dug nuggets of treasure, smiling despite the fear and death and destruction they have faced in their ruined city.
With the impetuousness that only children can muster, they forget for a moment the hell they have endured in Mosul.
“We had a big house but Daesh bombed and burned it,” said 10-year-old Nora, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS), her undersized frame draped in a hand-me-down dress with a black, Peter Pan collar.
“They destroyed us,” she said.
She is among thousands of children whose lives have been torn apart by a vast military operation to recapture Iraq’s second city of Mosul from ISIS.
She sits in a tent with other displaced children at a refugee camp 30km east of Mosul, quietly scrawling a pencil drawing of a bright pink heart.
That is far enough to finally silence the constant thud of shelling and the crack of rifle fire that the children heard for weeks.
The facilities are fine but basic — a few linoleum tables, plastic chairs, crayons, pencils and paper. The tent exteriors are daubed with bright murals of fields of flowers, technicolor handprints and SpongeBob SquarePants.
A small artificial turf volleyball court fades in the clear March sunshine.
For Maulid Warfa, an aid worker with the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, this “child-friendly space” has a crucial function. “Here is where children feel like children again,” he said.
Iraqi authorities said more than 200,000 people have fled western Mosul since an operation to oust ISIS from its former stronghold began.
The battle has taken a deadly toll on civilians, sparking calls for greater efforts to protect them.
When in the tent or in the play area, Nora and her friends could almost be mistaken for happy, carefree children anywhere but those fleeing Mosul have their telling signs: Fatigue darkening the eyes, sallow cheeks, shadows cast a little too thinly.
“It’s because of Daesh that we are here,” said 9-year-old Abdulrahman, sitting next to Nora at the black table strewn with crayon sketches. “There,” he said of Mosul, “there is fear.”
He talked against a soundtrack of children laughing and singing as they chased each other through the area. The gleeful sounds masked the fact that each child in the camp bears hidden scars.
“When they were in Mosul, they went through very, very difficult experiences,” said Warfa. “They have seen things that they should not have, many of them have seen people that have been killed. They have seen dead bodies.”
The Child Friendly Space, run in conjunction with charity Terre des Hommes, can help the children express themselves creatively.
Despite the psychological first aid they receive when arriving at the camp, many display understandable signs of the trauma they have witnessed.
“Some are aggressive and they run away from adults. There are those who hit their friends, others who don’t want to share anything,” said one social worker, who declined to give his name.
Warfa added: “Even though they look normal… they are burning inside.”
Their drawings depict both innocence and pain. Among the cheery scenes of sunshine, homes and animals, other images speak of more harrowing recent experiences in Mosul.
One, starkly traced in black pencil, shows a terrified child alone in a city consumed by flames.