The Lost Children of Mosul
Thousands of young Iraqis have been trapped, displaced, or killed as the fight to retake the city from the Islamic State enters its seventh month.
Photographs by Cengiz Yar
MOSUL, Iraq — The sound of mortar shells hitting earth and concrete broke the afternoon silence in the dusty suburbs on the eastern outskirts of Mosul. An exploding mortar bomb burst to the left near a cluster of houses, then another landed to the right. A cloud of charred smoke rose slowly over the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before the shouts and screams began.
It was Nov. 13, 2016. Iraqi forces had breached the edges of Mosul only a few days earlier and were using this newly captured neighborhood of Gogali as a staging point to push their way farther into the city. Not long after those Islamic State mortars first sprayed the neighborhood with shrapnel, Iraqi soldiers positioned nearby were able to gather the wounded.
Of those most gravely injured were Mohamed, 12, and Matham Tarek, 15. A few family members clustered around their bleeding bodies on top of an Iraqi Army Humvee speeding through the few blocks to a makeshift field clinic.
Slamming to a halt, the Iraqi soldiers rushed to offload the wounded; Mohamed was handed down first — his right leg had been split in two just below the hip, but his eyes were still wide open. The medics shouted at each other, working frantically on the 12-year-old’s mutilated leg as he lost consciousness on the stretcher. They tightened the tourniquet and then stuffed gauze into the gaping wound, wrapping it tightly. After doing their best to stop the bleeding, they put Mohamed into an ambulance for transport to a clinic farther away from the front lines. Their triage work was swift, their goal only to stabilize the boy so that he might survive the ride to a better-equipped facility.
In the meantime, the medics had placed Matham’s lifeless body on a stretcher, his face smeared with a bloody handprint. He had died from the shrapnel wounds before reaching the clinic. A handful of Iraqi soldiers wrapped him in a body bag and placed him on the ground. His father collapsed next to it with his head in his hands, tears streaming down his face.
The ongoing battle for Mosul — one of the largest urban battles to take place since World War II — has now entered its seventh month, and Mohamed and Matham were just two of thousands of Iraqi children who have since been caught up in the monthslong crossfire. According to UNICEF, more than a half-million children were believed to be in Mosul at the beginning of the offensive, and the organization now estimates that 200,000 children remain trapped in the western part of the city.
In late January, Iraqi forces successfully drove Islamic State fighters out of the eastern half of the city and are now making a push to reclaim the western half. It continues to be a bloody, brutal house-to-house fight between those Islamic State militants who remain and Iraqi forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition. The besieged civilian population has been battered throughout the fight. Local hospitals put the number of civilians killed or wounded during the first half of the battle at some 1,600, and the casualty count of those killed in the fighting over the western half of the city during the past two months continues to rise — many of them children.
Derek Coleman, a 27-year-old American volunteer working with Global Response Management at front-line stabilization points in Mosul, says since the beginning of the battle, children have made up roughly 25 percent of his trauma patients and are comparable in number to injured soldiers. “I never expected to have to treat so many children,” Coleman told
over the phone. “When we started with the Peshmerga, we had one little box labeled ‘pediatric.’ But when we entered Mosul, [it] ran out almost immediately.”
People are fleeing Mosul in the thousands, and more than half of them are children. They gather at checkpoints on the front lines — worn, tired, holding their few remaining possessions. More than 400,000 people have been displaced since the battle for Mosul began in October 2016. Those who are able to flee often face long treks on foot, walking for miles before they reach checkpoints. Others are trapped in their homes by the ongoing fighting. Around Mosul, aid organizations like the U.N. refugee agency have set up 21 camps for the displaced, but the conditions in many are poor; the rains turn the ground into mud, and children struggle ankle-deep while they wait in line for aid distributions. On the roads between the camps (which currently host more than 195,000 displaced people), families are crammed in buses and the backs of trucks.
Others, like 4-year-old Awra Ali, were unable to leave Mosul, trapped by the fighting. On March 17, a coalition airstrike hit her Jadida neighborhood of western Mosul. More than 150 people were killed during a series of strikes that day, including Awra’s mother. Awra was hit with shrapnel and thrown from the courtyard of her house. For the next three days, she lay wounded along with other members of her family in a backroom of a neighbor’s house, penned by a firefight between Islamic State snipers and Iraqi forces.
Ten days after being rescued, Awra was sitting in a bed in West Erbil Emergency Hospital, picking at the scabs and burns covering her face. Her grandmother, Alia Ali, sat on the bed beside her as she described how they were trapped after digging the girl from the rubble. “Three days we were stuck,” Alia said as tears welled in her eyes. “We ran towards the army, but they were shooting and the airstrikes were hitting us and [the Islamic State] was shooting at us. It was like we were in a grinder.”
Alia put a hand on her chest and drew a deep breath. “Isn’t it possible to solve this problem in a way in which civilians don’t lose their lives?”
Cengiz Yar is a documentary photographer and freelance photojournalist based between Chicago and Iraq.