A child cries while crossing the Tigris River in Mosul last month. Photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Five million children are in dire need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq after three years of ISIS and conflict within the country.
As violence intensified in the country after the rise of ISIS in 2014, children are the most vulnerable, trapped in an endless cycle of extreme violence and poverty, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) assessment released today entitled “Nowhere to Go.”
As Iraqi, Peshmerga and coalition forces have been fighting to defeat ISIS, frequently with the use of heavy weaponry and bombing in densely populated areas, especially in Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi, the battles have been fierce and bloody.
Children have suffered the most during the conflict, many being seriously injured, maimed, and some killed. Children were even direct targets of ISIS snipers seeking deter families attempting to flee conflict areas. Other children have been forced to join ISIS fighting or used as human shields.
“I tried to escape from Mosul four times,” a 12-year-old boy named Mohammad told UNICEF. “The last time the fighters caught me, they put a knife to my neck because they wanted to kill me. But my mother cried and begged them not to. My mother later told me I had to leave because boys my age were being recruited to fight.”
Fortunately, Mohammad was reunited with his mother three months later at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with the help of a UNICEF partner.
Of Iraq’s 3 million displaced, nearly half of them are children.
Over 4,600 children, some as young as three-years-old, have been separated from their families in the chaos of civilians attempting to flee the violence in their cities and towns.
Roughly 800,000 children have lost one or both parents, UNICEF reported.
“When the fighters came to my village, they asked to speak to the police. They said it was to give them their salary. I didn’t have any reason not to believe them, so I took them to the police station,” said 11-year-old Abdullah. “They beheaded my father and killed others as well. When my mother and I fled, I was injured by a land mine and lost parts of my fingers.”
Additionally, due to the ongoing conflicts, approximately half of the schools in Iraq have been destroyed or damaged. Rebuilding schools is a priority in areas liberated from ISIS. While the war continues in west Mosul, roughly 400 schools in the liberated east have been reopened to provide an education to nearly 400,000 children. If schools are lacking enough classrooms or desks, teachers work in multiple shifts to provide all children a chance to attend school.
Lack of infrastructure is not the only reason approximately 1.2 million children in Iraq are out of school among nearly 3 million children who are not able to attend school on a regular basis. One in four children are living in poor households with 500,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 forced into child labor to support their families.
“I would be happy in school. My friends are there. I want to go back and learn to read and write,” said Fares, a 12-year-old boy living in Baghdad. “I wish I could go back to school but my family has no one else to support them.”
Between January 2014 and May 2017, there have been 138 attacks on schools and 58 attacks on hospitals. 1,075 children have been killed, 1,130 have been maimed or injured, 1,300 have been abducted and 231 children have been recruited into fighting for ISIS. These numbers have been confirmed by UNICEF, however actual figures are likely to be much higher the agency noted.
Sexual violence against children is difficult to document due to fear of stigmatization and rejection, however many young girls have been abducted, forced into marriage, or sexually exploited during ISIS captivity.
"Across Iraq, children continue to witness sheer horror and unimaginable violence," stated Peter Hawkins, UNICEF representative in Iraq. “They have been killed, injured, abducted and forced to shoot and kill in one of the most brutal wars in recent history.”