In September last year, following the retaking of Mosul, I visited displaced Iraqi families in the town of Haj Ali, who had fled the threat of ISIS and missile strikes.
The children were safe, temporarily distracted from reality and fully immersed in one of our child friendly programmes. They were being educated in a makeshift classroom and enjoying the chance to be children, despite currently so close to a war zone.
So close in fact, that while we were there, the building we were in shook from distant airstrikes.
The stories of war
As the children played a game, they told us stories.
As a part of the game, the children were asked to describe the steps and events of characters who had been forced to flee their homes.
The children coloured their stories with what is likely to be their own experiences. Many spoke of being woken in their beds to flee in the night, hungry and uncertain of where they were going or what would happen next.
Much later, their parents told us in more detail of their decisions to flee, and heart-breaking stories of friends, neighbours and relatives killed by explosives – both improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and airstrikes.
I spoke with a frontline military medical practitioner who said it is often whole families caught up in a blast, with both children and adults arriving with multiple wounds and potentially severe trauma as a result.
One man’s mission to rebuild Iraq
Long after the skies are clear, and the foreign forces have returned home, remnants of war remain, often just hidden beneath the surface or behind closed doors.
The Deminer – a new film by by Hogir Hirori & Shinwar Kamal, showcases the courageous dedication of one man, a retired Major, but also a father and a husband, putting his life on the line to remove IEDs and landmines, both after the first Iraq war and then those planted by members of ISIS since 2014.
Success, but at what cost?
Iraq has slipped out of the spotlight, and as the country rolls towards elections this month, huge challenges remain for families wishing to return home.
Many areas in East and West Mosul remain contaminated by explosive devices, making it impossible for families to return home safely, rebuild their lives, re-enrol their children in school and find jobs.
The Iraqi authorities are grappling with the safety and security challenges in their plans and strategies to rebuild Iraq.
Part of the UK’s contribution has been to provide training and resources for mine clearance. However, significant challenges remain.
The Mosul offensive is being lauded by some as a ‘success’ but one doesn’t have to look far past the photos of what remains to see the destruction and wasteland that is left of parts of the city; nor talk to many people to hear of the dangers that remain from those that have sought to return.
The area was recovered, but at what cost? Families told me of their hopes to rebuild their futures, some wanting to return, and others already beginning to establish new foundations where they are. For those wishing to return, a long road lies ahead before areas can be cleared and parents can ensure that their children will remain safe when they head out to play.
Protecting children in armed conflict
Save the Children is campaigning to enhance the protection of children in conflicts around the world.
We believe that countries like the UK should take a leadership role in championing this agenda globally. This includes acknowledging the harm of explosive weapons that have wide-area effects when they are used in populated areas like Mosul.
Through this recognition, there is an opportunity to adopt policies and practices that seek to reduce the impact of these weapons, and strengthen measures to better protection civilians, including children.
To ensure children have hope – and in recognition that are the future of a country working to rebuild, they need to be protected during conflict and beyond.