Mosul’s children haunted by constant fear and intense sorrow a year after the city was retaken from ISIS
Extreme mental distress of parents has left children with nowhere to turn for help
A year since ISIS was expelled from Mosul, the city’s children are living in near constant fear for their lives, and are often reliving memories of devastation, displacement, bombing and extreme violence, a new report from Save the Children reveals.
With hundreds of thousands of children living amidst the rubble, even teenagers said they were too scared to walk alone, be without their parents or go to school - many of which bear the scars of war.
As a result, children are reporting serious emotional problems, depression and extreme anxiety and have been pushed to breaking point, Picking Up the Pieces: Rebuilding the lives of Mosul’s children after years of conflict and violence found.
Children and youth experienced unimaginable horrors under ISIS and a year on they are still struggling to cope with their fears and feelings that nowhere is safe. The lack of safety many girls and boys continue to feel is likely behind their inability to heal and is a key driving force for their worries. More than 80 per cent of adolescents surveyed said they did not feel safe walking alone and almost half did not feel safe away from their parents.
Ten-year-old Rahaf* was rescued from the rubble of her home where her family was killed by an explosion, and is haunted by her memories, with everyday noises reminding her of bombs falling.
She now lives with her uncle Abdullah* who said, “to this day, when she sees an airplane she gets very scared. She has an immediate reaction of fear of being bombed”.
The report’s findings include:
- Almost half of children surveyed felt grief all or a lot of the time.
- Fewer than one in 10 children could think of something happy in their lives.
- More than a quarter of adolescents told Save the Children they never liked who they were.
- Half of adolescents aged 13 to 17 did not feel safe away from their parents and 80 per cent did not feel safe walking alone.
- More than 80 per cent of caregivers said the worry caused by problems such as poor economic conditions and work opportunities caused them to lose sleep.
- 72 per cent of caregivers reported feeling unhappy or depressed, and more than 90 per cent reported feelings of worthlessness.
Save the Children asked caregivers about other social issues affecting youth that might be on the rise in the community - 39 per cent reported they knew of adolescents self-harming, while 29 per cent said they had heard about adolescent suicide attempts increasing.
To make matters worse, the report found the mental health of parents had been so badly impacted by the conflict that children had been left with little support, severely limiting their ability to break out of the devastating cycle of ongoing stress.
Instead of turning to overburdened parents and guardians, children are choosing not to speak about their problems, withdrawing from other people, and trying to self soothe or accept their problems – none of which are helping with their emotional distress.
“Internalising issues could put children at further risk of poor self-esteem, isolation and suicidal behaviour, and exacerbate their symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Save the Children Iraq Country Director Ana Locsin said.
“Unless children’s sense of safety is re-established, and parents are given support to help themselves and their families, children will remain distressed, leaving them at serious risk of further and long-lasting mental health issues.”
To add to the strain, many children are struggling to return to school because half of all schools in conflict-affected areas have been destroyed. Nearly one third of adolescents reported never feeling safe at school and only a quarter said they thought it was a safe space. This was in sharp contrast to the impressions of caregivers, with only 3 per cent of parents saying their children did not feel safe in school.
“These are children who have spent their formative years under ISIS. They have seen their schools transformed into battlegrounds and their friends killed in classrooms,” said Locsin. “School is no longer seen as a protective environment for children and it’s hard for them to feel safe in the classroom, and therefore, to learn and thrive.”
Twelve-year-old Fahad* from West Mosul now attends a school with damaged walls and no doors. “I don’t feel good in the class,” he said. “In this area, the sniper targeted the children so that when the mothers and fathers came to rescue them, he would shoot the whole family. The school got badly hit and the area became a frontline. The whole street became a frontline.”
Save the Children is calling on the international community to put the wellbeing of children at the heart of planning for post-conflict Iraq by stepping up funding for mental health and psychosocial programming and ensuring it is a key aspect of emergency responses as well as recovery and reconstruction efforts going forward. This year funding from the UN humanitarian appeal for Iraq for mental health programmes for children stands at just 7 per cent of what was requested. 
The Government of Iraq should also draft a national policy on mental health for children and families affected by conflict.
“It is imperative that urgent action is taken to ensure children have access to essential services, can feel safe to walk around, play outside and go to school,” Locsin said. “The future of Iraq depends on the development of its children into healthy, secure adults.”
The report is based on a survey of more than 250 children and caregivers from West Mosul. The children were aged 13 to 17.
Questionnaires were conducted with children and parents who experienced life under ISIS and the displacement and violence that followed the retaking of the city, first-hand.
Save the Children has been working in Iraq since 1991. We work across the country to provide a broad range of services – from health, sanitation and psychosocial support to education and child protection.
*Indicates the names have been changed
 The figure 7 per cent funding for children’s mental health is based on Save the Children’s analysis using the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) financial tracking system data (accessed on 01/07/2018). The Iraq appeal in total is 57 per cent funded https://ftsbeta.unocha.org/.