For those looking to understand the legacy of the Iraq War, the huge encampment of 85,000 civilians living on the outskirts of Fallujah is a good place to start.
As British politicians and journalists rush to assess Sir John Chilcot’s verdict on the 2003 invasion – the broken city of Fallujah provides a terrible example of what happens to a country when it is torn apart by conflict.
I am an Iraqi citizen, working for an NGO supporting children affected by the conflict. While I understand the need to look back on the decisions that led to the Iraq War, I need to take this opportunity to urge UK politicians to do more to help those who are still affected by the conflict today.
The situation for civilians is worse now than it was before the war broke out. Overall, according to a recent UN assessment, 10million people in Iraq are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance – and that is in a country of 34 million.
In Fallujah, my colleagues and I are supporting boys and girls to help them overcome the horrors of conflict. We provide psycho-social support to deal with trauma, emergency referrals for the most acutely affected children, and help identify unaccompanied boys and girls alone in the Fallujah camps.
But the problem – both in Fallujah and nationwide – is huge, and ourselves and other aid organisations are struggling to cope.
Children caught up in conflict need more than a humanitarian system that provides only food, water and shelter – they need long-term psycho-social support, protection and education. Such programmes are not cheap, but they are crucial.
Much more money is needed to help them – this is especially the case in Iraq, where the UN’s 2016 appeal for $861m is only 36 per cent funded.
It is critical that the UK government dedicates as many resources as possible to support the humanitarian response in Iraq. At present, it contributes just 1.2 per cent of the overall aid, compared to Germany’s 44.8 per cent.
We work for Afkar, an Iraqi NGO supported by War Child UK. We recently spoke to one girl, an 8-year-old with a brother and three sisters, who had been a model student at school. In Fallujah, she witnessed Isis executioners hang a man from a bridge in the city. The experience haunted her. She started refusing to go to school and would wake up crying every night.
Our psychologists also spoke to another girl, aged 10, who told us that during the Isis occupation she saw civilians executed in the streets of her city. She is suffering from extreme fear, is refusing to go to school and is exhibiting hysterical behaviour as a result of her experiences.
There are other examples – children who can no longer tell right from wrong as a result of their brutalisation; boys and girls who have been traumatised by airstrikes and artillery attacks; a seven-year-old girl who has rejected her own parents due to the psychological trauma she has experienced.
The problems are replicated across Iraq. In the country’s north, War Child UK is supporting thousands more children whose lives have been destroyed due to the upheaval that followed the Iraq War.
They include Iraqi families who have been displaced from their homes due to conflict, children in camps who are unable to go to school, and Yazidi boys and girls who were caught up in the Isis assault on their homelands in 2014.
After decades of conflict, I believe that if we don’t get the help needed to support the children of Iraq, the negative impact won’t just be on them – it will be on the whole of Iraqi society.
Mohamed el-Saleh works for Afkar, an Iraqi NGO supported by War Child UK.