When in 2014 Daesh fighters seized control of parts of Iraq’s territory, Mosul became the jihadists’ main bastion in the country. Following the takeover, Daesh began a campaign of terror against civilians. In 2016 the Iraqi army launched a military offensive to recapture the city and, after more than nine months of heavy fighting, the city was finally liberated in 2017.
Five years after the liberation, life is back in the streets of Mosul and people are focused on rebuilding their lives. But certain war-related scars will never heal, and the recovery has been proving particularly difficult for children, many of whom have been growing up seeing nothing but destruction and suffering.
Although there are no official government statements on how many children have been orphaned due to the war against Daesh, reports estimate tens of thousands. For children who lost their parents to extremists, moving forward often means having to learn how to cope with the traumatising past while having no one to turn to for help.
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Most of the children whose parents were killed by Daesh found themselves at the mercy of either their extended families or family friends.
“My best friend was a single father and he was working as a policeman involved in anti-Daesh operations. At some point jihadists found him, took him out of the city and murdered him,” said Muhammad, a man who took in an orphaned boy. He showed me photographs that served as police evidence. The man’s hands were tied to the back and he was shot in the head.
Muhammad already had two children of his own so now he and his family are raising three boys. “He is like my son now. I could not leave him on his own. His father and I were very close I had to do it for him.”
Sadly, as the Iraqi government has offered very little assistance to families who have taken in orphans, not all children have been lucky enough to find new guardians. There are hundreds of orphaned children who live on the streets of Mosul and have no choice but to beg for money or rummage through bins to find food.
Many children in Mosul work to help their families make end meets but they usually do so under their parents’ supervision. Orphaned children, on the other hand, are vulnerable to child labour in hazardous conditions and can easily fall victim to exploitation. They typically are out of school, which means they risk getting stuck in the cycle of poverty for the rest of their lives.
The children will also carry with them the psychological consequences of war for years to come. Generally, having a family serves as a safety net for kids dealing with PTSD and depression. Children need affection and love to thrive so, if a child has lost their parents to war, dealing with mental health issues can prove extremely challenging.
Despite certain families wanting to provide war orphans with assistance, poverty in Mosul is widespread. Years of conflict and violence have destroyed Mosul’s economy and many struggle to secure employment. Finding money to pay for water, food, education and health services for their own children is not easy and having one more child to provide for can make families feel desperate.
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Even providing adequate accommodation is a problem as Daesh levelled the majority of the city. People’s homes became uninhabitable and, not having the funds to completely rebuild them, some families live amid the rubble in very poor conditions. It is not uncommon for all family members to sleep in one room. As children grow, this overcrowding may reduce their quality of life and ability to progress in their education.
Daesh may have been defeated in Mosul, but people – especially orphaned children – still feel the consequences of the prolonged fighting. Re-establishing children’s sense of safety and creating an enabling environment is essential to rehabilitating Mosul.
Orphans of the war against Daesh are a humanitarian challenge that both the Iraqi government and the West should be paying more attention to. They must not become Iraq’s lost generation, condemned to living in the streets and struggling to survive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.