Iraqs lost generation: I have forgotten what happiness is
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.