Amid a crowded news agenda, Iraq has once again made its way to our newspapers and TV screens. As the Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition attempt to reclaim the city of Mosul from Isis, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing from the city amid intense fighting.
Away from the fighting, in hastily constructed camps around the contested city of Mosul, thousands of families gather in search of food, water, shelter and safety. After two years of Isis occupation they are poor, fearful, and immensely relieved to have the daily threat of violence and abduction lifted from their minds.
War Child has been working Iraq since 2003, delivering humanitarian aid, child protection, education support and trauma counselling to children affected by years of conflict. Temporary learning spaces have been set up in camps to provide non-formal education to allow children the quickest possible return to normality in a life free from Isis control.
Ahmed, a young boy in the first centre we visit, explained that for two and a half years he had not left his house. “I stopped going to school,” he said, “Daesh changed the curriculum so that the lessons were all about the Koran, how to hold weapons and how to count tanks. All my friends left the school.” Instead, for over two years, Ahmed stayed at home unable to play outside or even go onto the roof of his house. At first his father was with him, but one day an informer told Isis that he had been a police officer for the Iraq government. He was taken from their house and executed. “Many people were killed in the streets,” said Ahmed. “We saw people being attached to pylons and electrified to death.”
Such experiences are sadly all too common, and highly traumatic for boys and girls alike. On first arrival to the camps, children can be aggressive, starting fights with one another for no reason. Some have trouble sleeping, others are unwilling to speak or be left in the centre by their parents.
The situation, although bleak, is not hopeless – within days, the atmosphere in the centre can change. Children begin to talk to the War Child facilitators about what they have seen. The singing of songs becomes more frequent and confident, and games of football provide an obvious release from years of hiding in their own homes.
The passage of children from scared and wary to confident and hopeful is a privilege to observe. Most families in the camps live with stories of unbearable loss, but there is an atmosphere of hope and determination to rebuild their city and their lives. There is appreciation too for their liberation and the aid which is being provided.
But for this good-natured hope to continue, liberation must not come at a cost. The battle for Western Mosul has been characterised by slow progress and careful accuracy to safeguard civilian life. As this final push feels hurried and clumsy the US-led coalition must act with more care and consideration. In last week’s appallingly ill-judged airstrike, over 150 civilians died buried in rubble in what appears to be an attempt to deal with one Isis sniper on the roof of a residential building. There is no surer way to lose hard-earned trust from liberated and appreciative Iraqis
And we can’t console ourselves that this is a once only aberration. There are signs that, both in Mosul and Raqqa, US forces have been allowed to step way over the line of International Humanitarian Law in order to hasten victory over Isis. The battle shouldn’t be hurried, and nor should the next phase: an Iraqi-US victory in the Battle of Mosul, though decisive in the fight against Isis, is not a resolution for the Iraqis that call Mosul home.
Families free from Isis control, no longer seen as an urgent priority, will go back to homes that are damaged or destroyed, schools that are empty of furniture and teachers and jobs in need of resuscitation. As donors begin to lose interest, there is a danger that the funds needed for reconstruction will fail to materialise.
This way leads utter disaster and the guarantee of a new generation of wounded and distrustful Iraqis for whom conflict has shaped their lives.
Doing the job properly not quickly must become the focus. The drift in targeting rules must be reversed immediately and the plan for a sustainable future for these people must be mapped out.
The UK, now that we are aware of the carnage, must challenge this new practice and secure a return to warfare conducted within international law. To stay in this coalition, under these conditions, is to disregard civilian life and destroy the carefully build up trust.
Rob Williams is the chief executive of War Child.