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Children play in bomb craters: Daily life in the ruins of Mosul

Explosive weapons
Iraq United Kingdom

George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK
George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK, reports on his experience in Iraq, where HI teams are working to support communities as they recover from the impact of decades of conflict.

Two children play in the ruins of Mosul, Iraq

Two children play in the ruins of Mosul, Iraq | © F. Vergnes/HI

Iraq is a country that many of us have thought about and read about for decades. I was a child during the Iran-Iraq War, a teenager when Iraq invaded Kuwait and, as an adult, I followed the US-led invasion, the descent into Civil War and the emergence and defeat of ISIS. So it’s a country I felt I half-knew even before arriving in Baghdad for the first time.

Things have changed since the worst days of the conflict. Levels of armed violence are currently low, but it feels like a precarious settlement.

Mosul: Daily life surrounded by destruction

HI is working throughout Iraq, from the north to the far south. From Baghdad, I travelled to the north of the country.

Erbil is the capital of the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq. From there, it’s a fairly short drive to Mosul, but one that takes you, first, into a kind of no-man's land where refugees from the battle against ISIS continue to live in tattered camps and then back through checkpoints into territory controlled by the central government. The road passes through a Christian community followed by a Turkmen community, before, finally, you approach the outskirts of the city.

Landscape shot of Mossul, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Eastern Mosul is the more modern part of the city and was retaken from ISIS relatively quickly. It’s now full of life and much of the damage has been patched up. Our HI team is based here. However, the Old City, across the river, is still devastated. 

It is almost five years since the fighting ended and the scars – physical, social and mental – are everywhere.

Building after building has great chunks missing, with landings and stairwells exposed, doorways and windows blasted out of shape, and piles of rubble within. Walls, doors and lampposts are riddled with bullet holes, and many buildings were left booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices.

A chld stands in front of a ruined building, Mosul, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Today, children play in craters left by artillery shells and bombs. The old market is back in action again and people are getting on with life, but it’s life surrounded by destruction.

Recovering from the physical and mental scars

I visited HI’s rehabilitation clinic, where we’re helping people to recover from serious injuries and regain their mobility. I watched as our physiotherapists helped a young boy learn to walk again. His mother told me how thankful she was for the support we’re providing.

Some of our patients suffered serious psychological harm during the conflict, so we’re also working to improve their mental health and help them to overcome their trauma.

A young woman sitting on a treatment bed recieving care from an HI physio, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Campaigning to protect civilians

HI has campaigned for many years for governments to develop a much deeper understanding of the so-called “reverberating effects” of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Bombing cities generates the same pattern of civilian harm everywhere - in Mosul, as in Aleppo and now in Ukraine.

It not only kills huge numbers of civilians, but it also permanently injures many more, causes severe trauma, destroys essential infrastructure, ruins education and livelihoods, and leaves a devastating legacy of unexploded ordnance.

This is why we’re calling for a new global political declaration to curb the use of explosive weapons in urban areas – you can sign the petition here.

Children reading leaflets about the dangers of unexploded ordnance, Mosul, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Clearing landmines and explosive ordnance

In 2021, HI teams in Iraq cleared over 130,000 square metres of land contaminated by landmines. In Kirkuk Governorate, I met one of our landmine clearance teams and saw their work for myself, up close.

They were clearing an area that had been occupied by ISIS. Farmers are trying to return, but the risks are very high, so every day our teams put on heavy protective equipment and slowly sweep through the fields, looking for unexploded devices. It is hot, slow and dangerous work, but the dedication and professionalism of the people doing it is a privilege to see.

A bombed building with a danger sign, Mosul, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Supporting people with disabilities

Now that Iraq is enjoying a period of relative calm, we’re switching gears from emergency response to longer-term work to support communities as they recover.

As well as clearing minefields, we’re assisting conflict victims, providing physical and mental rehabilitation, running risk education sessions and promoting access to services and livelihoods for people with disabilities. In 2021, we provided services to over 200,000 Iraqis.

A father pushes his daughter in a wheelchair, Iraq
© F. Vergnes/HI

Among the people I met were the Iraqi Alliance for Disability. Working alongside HI, this is a group of advocates for the rights of people with disabilities from all across the country and from every community – whether Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen or Yazidi. The Alliance fights for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Iraqi life. They told me how hard things can be when public services have been set back by years of conflict. But they also showed that it’s possible to change attitudes and policies, and to secure funding for projects that transform people’s lives. Thanks to their hard work, the voices of the people they represent are now being heard not just in the halls of power in Baghdad, but in UN-led forums right across the world.

Much of this is work that won’t happen without the support of expert organisations like HI and the generosity of our donors. Our commitment makes an enormous difference to people’s lives, especially those who are most vulnerable or most in need of support. It is also part of a bigger effort to rebuild the country; this is a time of hope for Iraq, and I’m proud that my superb colleagues are playing a part in helping the country and its people move towards a brighter future.

George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK

George Graham,
Chief Executive, Humanity & Inclusion UK

Date published: 29/06/22

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