Mosul’s orphans facing unknown fate

Sunday 13/08/2017
Precarious state. Iraqi children sit in a vehicle in Mosul’s western industrial district, on July 8. (AFP)

Baghdad - Abdallah, Mariam and Rahma are younger than 1 year old and their identities are unknown. They were rescued from the rubble as Iraqi forces battled to wrest control of Mosul’s old city from Islamic State (ISIS) militants. The three toddlers were given names at the orphanage where tens of children left orphaned by the 9-month-long war to end ISIS’s con­trol of Iraq’s second largest city are harboured.
“Scores of children have lost their parents in the intense bombard­ment or in booby traps and suicide bombings perpetrated by ISIS. We have given them names to facilitate sorting them out until we can estab­lish their identity and trace their kin to hand them over,” said Sukaina Mohamad Ali, the head of the Office of Women and Children in Nineveh province.
Ali, who also runs the biggest or­phanage in Mosul, said the organi­sation received children found by Iraqi forces in the debris and near dead bodies. “Most of them had no ID, so we don’t know who they are,” she said. “They were in a very pre­carious state suffering from malnu­trition and thirst.”
Among Mosul’s orphans, many are the children of foreign and lo­cal ISIS fighters killed in battle. “We don’t know their exact number be­cause they are dispersed in several refugee camps but there are at least 600 of them staying in Hammam al Alil camp,” Ali said.
“We received 20 boys who ISIS kidnapped from their families to recruit in their children’s unit, the Fetiyen al Jinneh. They are aged 8-11 and we were able to iden­tify them and reunite them with their families.”
Some of the children at the or­phanage were Yazidis held by ISIS. Others were Chechen or from dif­ferent Arab nationalities and were taken to Baghdad. The orphanage is expecting 1,700 additional orphans in the next stage.
In addition, some 1,500 women married to slain ISIS fighters, in­cluding ten who are pregnant, shel­tered in al-Jadaa refugee camp, fear­ing reprisals from locals, Ali said.
“The scale of social problems fac­ing Iraq in post-ISIS areas is over­whelming. Revenge acts can be ex­pected by families who suffered at the hands of the militants no matter how much the government tries to prevent such acts,” she said.
While there is no government plan to deal with the problem, at­tempts have been made to identify the children by posting photos on social media. “We used all possible means and we succeeded in iden­tifying many, especially those aged between 6 and 8,” Ali said.
The children are sometimes har­boured in private homes by fami­lies, volunteer workers and individ­uals such as Iraqi soldier Mohamad Saleh.
“While we were battling in the old city we discovered many children alone near the corpses of women. I took home a 3-year-old boy called Ahmad while his 1-year-old brother was transferred to a hospital in Er­bil,” Saleh said.
“I posted Ahmad’s photo on so­cial media, which allowed his un­cles to identify him. They took him away after showing me papers prov­ing their relationship.”
The near total absence of psy­chological or psychiatric services that could treat the myriad traumas of war will make Iraq’s children an even more vulnerable generation.
Hamida Ramadhani, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Iraq, said the “children’s deep physical and mental scars” would take years and strong efforts to heal.
“Some 650,000 boys and girls, who have lived through the night­mare of violence in Mosul, have paid a terrible price and endured many horrors over the past three years. The needs and the future of these children must remain a top priority in the weeks and months to come,” Ramadhani stated.
She said UNICEF has seen a con­siderable increase in the number of extremely vulnerable unaccompa­nied children arriving at medical of­fices and reception areas. They are referred immediately to humanitar­ian organisations so they can be as­sisted and where possible reunified with their families.
Abir al-Jalabi, director of child­care at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said the government does not have statistics on or­phaned children in Mosul because of persisting unstable security in the city.
“We know for sure that the num­ber is very big. The ministry has an­ticipated the needs and equipped several orphanages in the city but we need to set up new facilities in view of the large numbers,” Jalabi said.
Khalaf al-Hadidi, a member of Mosul’s municipal council, ac­knowledged that the issue of or­phans is a complex matter that re­quires local and international effort. “We need to learn from the experi­ences of other countries that faced the same challenge. This necessi­tates lots of resources, both finan­cial and human, which Iraq is short of,” he said.