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After IS: Children struggle to overcome war wounds in northern Iraq

Omar Fathi Hasan, 13, collects scrap iron from a building destroyed by fighting in the old city of western Mosul in northern Iraq on Aug. 10, 2018. He is the sole earner for his family following his father's death in fighting. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

MOSUL, Iraq -- Buildings that were once houses and shops are all but collapsed, their walls covered by countless bullet holes. A sofa is pierced by a steel rod coming out from the concrete frame of the structures. The mercury is 47 degrees Celsius. An ambulance is lying on its back as the painfully harsh sunlight of August falls on the dusty street as occasional traffic drives by.

This second largest city in Iraq was the main base for the Islamic State, a group of radicals occupying a large swath of Iraq and neighboring Syria. In July last year, Iraqi forces took back Mosul by driving out the IS forces from the last bastion on the western bank of the Tigris River. Months of fighting rendered the city desolate.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3 million people have become internally displaced since 2014 because of the expansion of IS control and relevant battles. The largest displaced group came from Ninawa Governorate in northern Iraq where Mosul is the capital. As of the end of August, almost 1.9 million people were still forced to live in camps or relatives' houses.

The Noori Mosque, which was once the symbol of IS rule, was ultimately destroyed by the IS. A warning against booby traps using toy dolls was hung on the metal fence surrounding the mosque grounds. As we entered a maze of streets, foul smells hit our nostrils. A 23-year-old man, who said he survived the fierce battle with his twin 2-year-old boys by staying in an underground bunker, looked at a three-meter-high pile of rubble in front of their house and told us: "Thirteen Russian combatants are buried under this."

Omar Fathi Hasan, 13, was collecting pieces of iron on the first floor of a former shop hit by direct shelling. He placed an aluminum basket and broken computer boards in a tiny cart attached to a donkey. He makes about 6,000 dinars, or some 600 yen, on a brisk day selling the metal. He is the eldest of five siblings, and he earns money for them and their grandmother.

"Our father was shot to death in battle, and our mother left us. I'm the only one (to help the family)," said Omar. A ray of sunlight hit the back of the boy as he returned inside the burnt building. The light was coming in from a hole in the ceiling about 2.5 meters in diameter.

Following the Iraq War of 2003, an IS predecessor was born amid social confusion. The radical group committed extreme violence such as murder, abduction and rape as it controlled its "caliphate." Muslims, among others, vehemently accused the group of committing atrocities. The Iraqi government announced in December last year that it had won the war against the IS.

The Mainichi Shimbun and the Mainichi Social Welfare Foundation dispatched us to Iraq on the 40th anniversary of their campaign to save children in need worldwide. We found deep scars inflicted on the youth in the Middle Eastern country struggling to recover from years of war.

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Jasam, 11, takes care of his little sister Hajar, 2, at the Debaga 1 refugee camp in Erbil Governorate in northern Iraq. Their parents were killed in a bombing in June 2017. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

The brother sat cross-legged, holding his little sister on top of him and gently kissing her on the cheek, with a shy gesture. "You asked me which part of my sister I like? Everything," answered Jasam Ali Mohammed, 11, who lives in the Debaga 1 refugee camp in the northern Iraqi governorate of Erbil in the Kurdish autonomous region. Concrete one-story houses cover the vast expanse where Jasam and his 2-year-old sister Hajar live with 11 relatives under the care of their aunt Sadia. The parents of Jasam and Hajar were killed in a bombing of the western part of the old city of Mosul.

Jasam used to live in the town of Shirqat about 90 kilometers south of Mosul controlled by the IS, with his parents and four siblings. He was so afraid to talk to IS fighters in the town. "They had long beards dangling to their chests, and their hair was very long." He saw them whipping some residents.

On a day in June 2017, Jasam heard large booms as he was playing on the street near his home. As he rushed back to his house, he saw the roof of his house collapse. As he was crying in front of his home having no idea what to do, a neighbor came to the rescue and dragged out his bloodied mother. Hajar and his other siblings were not harmed as they took refuge in the basement, but the mother died at the hospital. The body of the father was later found under the rubble.

Tall and happy, the father was always friendly to Jasam. He remembers days when he would ride on a Ferris wheel at an amusement park and appreciated the cityscape. The mother was so kind that she never hit him. When he was given change, Jasam would run to a nearby shop to buy snacks. "I loved my father and mother so much," he said. A toy truck, a red shirt and pants his parents bought for him, are all under the rubble of their home.

Jasam's three other siblings now live in a nearby refugee camp with their relatives. Taking care of his sister Hajar is his mission; He feeds her snacks, makes her drink water, and sleeps alongside her. "She cries when I try to go out with my friend," said a smiling Jasam. Aunt Sadia, with tears welling up in her eyes, said, "He is trying to ease the burden on me." Sadia lost her husband and three sons in IS sniping and bombing attacks.

"My father and mother would have done the same thing for me," said Jasam as he strongly hugged Hajar -- as if he was gripping his own loneliness that never goes away.

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Osaka City News Department)

This is Part 1 of a series.

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