The Mosul offensive continues—both militarily and in terms of help for civilians—but it is not too soon to help the region’s children start to recover from years of suffering. As Iraqi forces enter Mosul, they are not only faced with ISIS militants but also up to 1.5 million civilians still trapped, including about 600,000 children, who are growing increasingly desperate. In the short term, safe routes must be established so these families can escape the violence. We risk another Aleppo, where civilians are trapped inside a warzone, if safe passage is not possible.
As thousands of families flee and others are caught in the crossfire or by snipers and landmines, children must urgently be protected. However, in the long run, we will fail Mosul if we are unable to help a whole generation of children recover from the violence, uncertainty and lack of schooling that they have faced in recent years.
Thousands of babies were born in Mosul in 2003 and 2004 as the war in Iraq was taking place and fighting raged in the city. Now in their early teens, these children have lived the vast majority of their lives in a state of uncertainty.
By 2008, when these children should have been starting kindergarten, armed militants were using the city as their strategic center of gravity—a hub for funding and violence. UNICEF reported at least one-third of children in Mosul were out of school. Even as active conflict subsided, it remained a dangerous place to be a child. In December of that year, a bomb detonated outside a primary school as students were leaving for the day, killing three children and injuring 18.
The situation grew even direr in 2014 when ISIS invaded the city—just as children born in 2003 should have been finishing primary school. The group took control of schools, burned textbooks and instituted a new extreme curriculum. Children were to be drilled in lessons on ISIS doctrine. The curriculum was also militarized and encouraged children to fight and learn how to use weapons.
More than one million children who have been living under ISIS in Iraq have either been out of school or forced to learn from an ISIS curriculum. Many parents refused to send their children to school out of fear for their safety and wellbeing. Other families had to make the difficult decision to flee their homes to escape violence and intimidation and are now living in camps or non-camp settings that don’t always have educational opportunities for young people.
Now, with the offensive to retake Mosul underway, Save the Children staff positioned in nearby camps report meeting families with children who have escaped the fighting and who say their children are getting sick from breathing air filled with smoke from oil wells that ISIS set on fire. Many have already lost loved ones and they are dehydrated and hungry from long journeys made on foot as they flee ISIS-held areas.
Mahmoud, a father we met, recently escaped Shura, south of Mosul. As fighting approached the village, he and his family were taken deeper into ISIS territory, where they were reportedly forcing people to act as human shields. The family escaped and is now in a temporary camp.
“I have four daughters. Before IS the older ones were going to school and loved it," he said. "When IS took over, the content of the curriculum changed, so we stopped sending them. Every lesson became militarized. Even math lessons—they would teach the children ‘one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets.’ They’ve now been out of school for two years.”
We know from our work in Iraq and other conflict zones that getting children back into school is absolutely critical. Being in a classroom setting provides a child with a sense of normalcy that they miss during times of conflict or displacement. Trained teachers can help students process the trauma they have experienced, and a quality education can help young people acquire the knowledge, tolerance, and critical thinking skills necessary to help rebuild their country and make a constructive contribution to society.
The government of Iraq and international partners can show their commitment to education in Iraq in four ways:
For those families who have already fled or who are desperately trying to, children need to be provided with quality education and psycho-social support inside camps established for internally displaced people and refugees. Save the Children is establishing temporary learning places in tents in one of the camps where people have fled, but much more is needed.
The Iraqi government should also work with international partners to reopen schools in retaken areas as soon as it is safe to do so. Repairs to schools should be prioritized, and school buildings should only be used for classes, not by the military.
Additionally, special attention needs to be given to children who have been forced to serve as child soldiers. They need extra help to make up for time lost in the classroom, tools to regain their self-confidence, and assistance reducing stigmas that might exist in their communities.
Finally, make sure that all Iraqi children can go to school. Iraq was once a country where more than 90% of children were in education, but it now has about 3.5 million children out of school. Donors must ensure that the UN’s 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan is fully funded—at the moment education has only 40% of the funding it requires.
Securing Mosul is crucial, but unless we include education in the immediate recovery plan, it will be almost impossible to build a prosperous city and region. Children of Mosul have suffered for many years and have missed out on enough of their childhoods. Getting them back into a safe positive school environment is critical to starting the recovery process, giving them hope for the future and breaking the cycle of suffering in Mosul.