Iraqs lost generation: I have forgotten what happiness is

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Iraqs lost generation: I have forgotten what happiness is
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Zanab Ismail wanted to be a doctor, Raghda Ali was studying to be a nurse then Isis destroyed Mosul. Three years on, can they start over?

When Mosul was finally liberated on 9 July, Zanab Ismail was 50 miles away, watching events on TV. Her family had left their home in Iraqs second largest city on the morning of 26 August 2014, after shouts from the street warned them that Isis had entered the area. Rumours had preceded the invasion of what Isis fighters were doing to families with connections to Iraqi forces beheadings, executions as well as their treatment of women and girls, the rapes and forced marriages. Zanab was 17 at the time. Her father Mohammed, a property developer and teacher, wanted to get his family out of Mosul as fast as possible, particularly his son, Amir, 26, who worked for the police force.

They arrived at Baharka, a camp for people fleeing Isis, near Erbil, with almost nothing. They imagined they would stay for a few months, then go home. Three years later, they were still there: Zanab, her parents, five brothers and sisters, living among row upon row of small grey tents, spread across the bleak plains of northern Iraq.

The family longed to return to their former life. Zanabs father owned four homes in Mosul, renting out three; he enjoyed gardening and seeing friends. Her mother Kuther would make maqluba (rice, lamb, tomato) and dolma (aubergine or courgette stuffed with ground beef and rice); when the summer heat became unbearable, they would swim in the familys indoor pool. Zanab was about to take her exams and go to medical school.

In Baharka they prayed and waited for things to change. So when the TV in their makeshift home broadcast images of prime minister Haider al-Abadi arriving in Mosul to congratulate Iraqs armed forces on their victory over Islamic State, they felt hope for the first time in years. It only increased their impatience to get home.

***

It is early September when I arrive in Iraq, and the legacy of the conflict is still apparent in the time it takes to travel from one part of the country to another. It is 60 miles from Erbil to west Mosul, a distance that should take an hour, but takes nearer three because of all the checkpoints (run by Iraqi forces and Shia militias in government-held territory; and by the peshmerga and Kurdish security forces in Kurdistan). The soldiers are stationed to detect Isis sympathisers, criminals and other terrorist group members such as al-Qaida, and to monitor who is moving about and why. The length of the wait depends on the time of day. At peak times, long columns of stationary vehicles can stretch for miles: Toyota pick-up trucks, many belonging to NGOs; huge lorries transporting essentials such as vegetables, rice, flour, bags of general-purpose cement (Iraq produces almost nothing apart from oil and gas, so everything has to be imported by road); or taxis, dilapidated yellow Nissans, often with six people squeezed in the back seat and four in the front.

Baharka
Baharka camp on the plains of northern Iraq. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

Mosul was once a vibrant city with a population of 1.4 million, rivers, forests, markets, a famous university and some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world. But when we arrive, the street scene is post-apocalyptic: mountains of rubble and shattered stone; surfaces cracked and fractured; the Ibn Sina teaching hospital broken open, like a childs toy.

It is estimated that about 920,000 people fled or were evacuated during the fighting. By 27 June, just over 200,000 had returned. The hard work of rebuilding has begun, but initial repairs are expected to cost more than $1bn, according to the UN, which some say is still not enough. And the damage is more than just structural.

This month, Oxfam issued a warning about the long-term consequences for a generation of Iraqis coming of age in war. Young people constitute the largest sector of Iraqs population: 61% are below the age of 24 and 20% are between 15 and 24, according to 2014 figures. Oxfams Iraq youth report includes a long list of the problems faced by young people during the Isis occupation, from interrupted education to loss of freedom, trauma, shock and fear, and the more practical difficulty of finding a job in the aftermath. The implications of not appropriately addressing youths educational, socioeconomic, civic and psychosocial concerns are potentially far reaching, the report warns, hinting at dark repercussions through the generations if such issues are ignored. Understanding the concerns, hopes and recommendations of youth is critical to the long-term stability of the country.

***

I first met Zanab in Baharka camp in late September 2014, when I was reporting on internally displaced people those who had fled Isis but hadnt left the country. Her family had arrived a month before and were living in an abandoned warehouse with 200 others. The space was vast and echoed with the cries of children; the concrete floor was scarred by deep gouges and filled with rubbish and pools of dirty water. Her family lived in an oblong pen, 6m x 2.4m (20ft x 8ft), with tarpaulin walls.

We sat on the floor, with makeshift beds piled to one side and clothes in plastic bags hanging from hooks. The bathrooms were a 500m walk away. They always went as a group, even at night.

Zanab, then 17, was shy and quiet, dressed in a harlequin-patterned dress. Our conversation was brief. She wanted to be a doctor. She was in her final year at secondary school, and about to sit her exams, when, suddenly, the family had to run away. What did she miss most, I asked. My school books, she replied, and burst into tears.

Zanab
Zanab Ismail with her father Mohammed in Baharka camp: I have lost my education and cannot get it back. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

Today, Zanab is wearing a leopard-print dress. She is still interested in clothes, but the unending boredom and confinement of the camp have taken a toll. Three years ago she was rail-thin. For the first two weeks on the camp, I couldnt eat or talk to anyone, she tells me. Now, she is heavy and pale.

There have been improvements in the familys living conditions. Her father had arrived at the camp with $200 (his money was tied up in property; his cash-rich neighbours rented homes in Erbil), but he found a job teaching at the camp school and for the last 18 months he has been paid $200 (150) a month. Bit by bit, he has set about improving their lives: a TV ($250), fridge ($250) and a house ($700). The family now live in a part-tent, part-concrete construction down one of the chaotic alleys in the camp. Their home has three rooms, one they use as a bedroom, another as a sitting room and a third as a kitchen. There is an outdoor loo nearby. Mohammed also has a car (donated by his former teaching colleagues) and the family are free to leave the camp and go on shopping expeditions to Erbil.

Last November, they finally had enough money to send Zanab to a government-funded school for 12- to 18-year-old displaced people just outside the camp. The school is free, but students have to pay for the bus ($30 a month), stationery and books. I cant explain to you how happy I was, Zanab says, but at the same time I was really afraid. Id been out of school for so long, and its hard to study with the way Im living now.

She recently sat the exams she was about to take three years ago in Mosul, and is waiting for the results. She needs to get 95 out of 100 to go to medical school. I wont get the grade, she says, bursting into angry tears. I wanted to be a doctor, for my father to be proud of me, and also to help poor people, and now I cant. I lost three years of my life. Isis has destroyed everything.

The family are moving back to Mosul in a month not to their home, which was taken over by a senior Isis commander and subsequently looted and destroyed, but to Bartella, a suburb 13 miles to the east of the city. Mohammed says he is still afraid to go back to Mosul, because my son, Amir, has been threatened and the situation is not stable yet. But I feel safe to go to Bartella.

Perhaps Zanab could retake her exams, I say. There is more sobbing. There isnt enough money. We are eight in our family. Its not only me.

The photographer asks to take Zanabs picture. I am not going to smile, she replies. I have lost my education and cannot get it back. I have forgotten what happiness is. I want you to capture that in this picture.

***

Iraq used to be a well-educated country, with a youth literacy rate of 82%, according to Unicef figures from 2013. Coeducational schools were broadly available and equipped with good facilities and teachers; more than half of young people living in urban areas attended secondary school. For many, the dream was to go to Mosul University, one of the largest and finest in the Middle East, with 32,000 students and 4,200 faculty members.

Today, Abdul Ameer Hussein, former professor of engineering, is showing me around the charred remains of buildings on what were once tree-lined grounds near the Tigris. Throughout the 32 months that Islamic State ruled Mosul, the campus was gradually closed down. At first they forced the professors and teachers to keep coming, Hussein says. Those who refused were punished. They were beheaded or run over by cars. Isis shut down courses such as philosophy and politics, but kept medicine, dentistry and pharmacy open. They needed people who were trained in those subjects. By 2015, the universitys laboratories were being used to manufacture chemical bombs and suicide vests. Women were barred from enrolling unless they studied medicine.

Walking around the campus now, it is clear that a prodigious amount of ordnance was deployed by the international coalition to recapture the university in January. The howitzers, mortars, long-range weapons and other explosives have left a devastating footprint; Vice News has reported that a dozen civilians were killed and 87 wounded in a coalition airstrike on the university last March.

The
The ruins of Mosul University. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

Isis added to the devastation with its exit strategy, torching buildings, including the historic library, which had a million books and a prized Quran from the ninth century. They put asphalt and oil in plastic containers, and when the container melted, it released a burning stream of oil that spread through the building, Hussein says. Isis also left improvised explosive devices in classrooms, hallways, offices, even wastepaper bins. There were 12 IEDs in the library alone.

The first eight of 50 generators were delivered in June, helping supply power to the university; the day we visit, engineering and science students are completing end-of-year exams. Students also recently held a read-in to celebrate the revitalisation of the intellectual life of Mosul. But recovery will be a long road, Hussein says.

In August 2014, Raghda Ali, now 26, was about to start her second year at the university, where she studied nursing. The oldest of eight, Raghda is fortunate that her father, Ali, 52, is open-minded. Only a minority of young women are encouraged to take up further education in Iraq.

My father said that if I went to college, he would buy me a car and teach me how to drive, she says. This is great, our female translator says, explaining that women in Iraq have to struggle for many things: seats in parliament, reproductive rights, positions at university, even the right to walk alone by the river, shop in the market or eat in a restaurant things Raghda takes pleasure in.

Raghdas father, a driver, was working 140 miles south in Sulaymaniyah when Isis came. His wife, Najlaa, 42, was alone with the children in Mosul. He tried to organise a car so we could escape, but another family tried to leave just before us and Isis found out and killed them all, Raghda says.

When Isis fighters came to Iraq, they promised they would restore services to cities and towns that lacked them. They promised improved electricity, rubbish collections, nicer roads; they said life would be better for ordinary people. In Mosul, Isis swiftly took over consulates, courthouses, schools, police stations and military bases. They left their mark everywhere, hanging flags, broadcasting speeches from mosque loudspeakers, replacing Iraqi numberplates on cars with new Isis ones.

Raghda
Raghda Ali (centre) with her younger sisters Mona and Mariam: Of course I am angry. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

The first time Raghda saw an Islamic State militant up close was about a week into the new regime. I went to visit my grandmother and one came up to me and said, Why havent you covered your face, your hands? Women had to be covered at all times in niqabs and abayas. They didnt beat me, because my brother was with me, but they were very aggressive. Later she saw burned bodies on the street. Her cousin was killed, because he worked for the police, as was her uncle, because he was a government official.

Raghda became too terrified to leave home; instead, she watched DVDs (she taught herself English from Titanic and Spider-Man) and helped her mother with chores. Militants watched every inch of Mosul, but living in the east felt safer, she says. She heard stories of how Isis had abducted women on the west side: They just took girls as their wives. Then, a month before Iraqi forces reclaimed east Mosul, Isis fighters stormed into their home one evening. Raghda hid in the kitchen with her two sisters, Mona, 14, and Mariam, 17, while their mother and brother were questioned. They stayed for 15 minutes, then I heard them go and I could breathe again.

The thing that puzzles her most is why women joined Isis. Isis treated women like dogs, she says. Yet when Isis came to Mosul, it wasnt only local women who welcomed them. A Russian couple moved into their neighbourhood. She wore the niqab and the gloves, but you could see her blue eyes and white skin. They had crossed the world to join Isis and were embracing jihad with enthusiasm. The Russian woman, Raghda says, was even crueller than local Isis women. If she saw women without gloves or socks, she would get very angry.

Under Isis rule, food became expensive: 50kg of rice jumped from $10 to $50 (8 to 38), because the only corridor open for goods was from Syria. The water supply was on the brink of collapse and the family were forced to use dirty water from a well in the garden. I didnt get sick, but my sisters did, Raghda says. Her sisters stopped going to school. A few months after occupation, Isis introduced a revised curriculum and shut down coeducational schools.

The family spent the last three months of Isis rule at a refugee camp in a village called Hasan Sham, 20 miles east of Mosul, where they were reunited with their father. Raghdas brother, Hamid, was two when their father left; when he returned, he was five. It was like a film, Raghda says.

They moved back to Mosul two months ago and Raghda is now waiting to resume her nursing degree. Mona and Mariam hope to return to school, but will have to pick up where they left off, which means being taught with pupils three years younger, a humiliation that puts many off.

Of course I am angry, Raghda says. Three years have been stolen from my life. Who will take responsibility for that? What will happen to us?

***

In Jeddah refugee camp near Qayyarah, a town south of Mosul, Aya, 48, and her two daughters-in-law, Noor and Leyla (not their real names), both 29, sit in a small tent. It is extremely hot, but they are wearing the niqab and robe-like dresses. Only their eyes are visible. This is an Isis family.

Ayas oldest son, Omar, joined Isis in 2014, and her younger son, Denmar, supported the caliphate. In July, both men were killed when shells fell on their home in west Mosul. Omar left behind three children, the youngest only five months old. In all, 13 men have been killed in their family all of them Isis supporters.

Aya explains that the religious propaganda was a strong lure for her family (Isis are the real Muslims, she says). But they were also impressed by the order Isis brought to Mosul. In 2014, the city was protected by a zealously sectarian Shia force, overseen by the then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Aya and her family, like most people in Mosul, are Sunni Arab. There were a lot of checkpoints, she says, and we werent allowed to go into many of the areas they controlled. If you wanted to go to the hospital, you had to go through multiple checkpoints.

Isis cleared out the checkpoints. There was no more Shia army in the city, no more detainees and bribes. But then citizens were forced to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis. Christians were given three choices: convert to Islam, flee Mosul or be killed.

Refugees
Refugees at the Jeddah camp. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

What about the cruelty and punishments? Before, it was hidden, but under Isis it was out in the open, says Aya, who welcomed the Isis-controlled courthouse trials. She was reassured by the fact that the punishment for theft, for example, a hand being cut off, was issued only if four people saw you doing something.

The young women, who are cousins and got married on the same day eight years ago, are positive about Isiss treatment of women. They respect women more by forcing them to wear the veil and gloves, Noor says. Walking in the street, you dont have boys trying to talk to you.

After her sons were killed and Isis was expelled from its stronghold in west Mosul in July, Aya was moved to the camp with other Isis-supporting families. Though Oxfam has reported stories of collective punishment where families affiliated to Isis are forcibly evicted from communities, made to live in refugee camps or forbidden to return home Ayas experience has been different: Everyone is really friendly.

I lived a good life under Isis occupation, Leyla says, her eyes brightening above her veil. This is how life should be.

***

Sharmad, 26, Ahmmad, 27, and Akram Muklis, 30, are three brothers who remained in Mosul under Isis rule. We were due to meet at their house in the Old City, but someone had been kidnapped in their neighbourhood the preceding day there are still Isis sleeper cells in the city so Mosul general hospital was considered a safer option.

From inside, it doesnt look like a hospital. It was torched by retreating Islamic State militants seven months ago and, while partially renovated and now overwhelmed by patients, the walls are soot-stained, lifts burned down to black skeletons and the medical stores depleted.

We talk in what was the managers office on the first floor. Who had it worst, I ask, young men or young women? Women, they chorus, because they had to stay indoors. But it is clear that the new order was oppressive for men, too. They were not allowed to cut their beards or style their hair (today, all three have gelled hair and goatee beards). They were not permitted to wear skinny jeans (They would say you were gay and throw you off a building, Ahmmad says); they had to wear their trousers above the ankle. Smoking and playing football were also forbidden.

Sharmad, who was studying history at Mosul University and is, the brothers agree, the quiet one, spent his days playing volleyball with friends and trying not to see the executions broadcast on TV after Isis took over the local channel. I didnt think it was OK to see these things, he says.

Ahmmad, the chatty one (Akram is the responsible one), ran a teashop near Bab al Tob, a square in the centre of Mosul, where large crowds would gather to watch executions. Isis fighters would tell people to close their shops and come and watch, he explains. He saw a woman, charged with being a prostitute, being stoned to death and an atheist beheaded. You didnt see his face because it was covered in a black hood. Afterwards, one of the Isis fighters took the head and put it on the guys back. He left it there for an hour. I didnt eat for two days after that, Ahmmad says.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/21/iraq-mosul-lost-generation-isis-forgotten-happiness

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