JUDY WOODRUFF: Iraqi government forces are today engaged in heavy fighting against ISIS militants in the city of Mosul, battling neighborhood by neighborhood.
Since the operation began last October, almost 130,000 of the city’s million-plus residents have fled. Many are living in nearby camps for internally displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan. Half of them are children.
For two-and-a-half years, all they have known is ISIS. Now they and their families are stranded, waiting out a long, cold winter.
From Northern Iraq, special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Eric O’Connor report.
MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a scene of utter chaos. News of food arriving sends these civilians displaced by the battle for Mosul into a frenzy, charging this truck, as desperate hands reach out to catch bread and water, talk to a mob of hungry people.
The camps were supposed to be temporary solution, yet families here are facing what now promises to be a very long winter. It’s painfully cold, down to freezing temperatures at night. Toxic fumes from the gas stoves and heaters permeate the tents.
Yet, in this corner of the camp, we found a reason to smile. These are sounds most of these children have not made in almost two-and-a-half years. Every day, the children clamor at the gates of this child-friendly space. They get a precious six hours a week here to play, sing and learn, a far cry from the horrors of ISIS.
We sat down with a few students in the drawing tent. Like most children, 13-year-old Zuha stopped going to school when ISIS came to Mosul and missed out on things like drawing. Now she draws her memories of home.
ZUHA, Student (through translator): We had a garden, so I draw flowers.
MARCIA BIGGS: Twelve-year-old Bishara did stay in school under ISIS, which used militarization and indoctrination as part of its lesson plan. In these pages of a math book, children are asked to solve problems about setting land mines and killing nonbelievers.
BISHARA, Student (through translator): After ISIS came, I stayed in school one-and-a-half years. Everything changed. In math, the curriculum changed. Thy used bullets. Like, one bullet plus two bullets equals three bullets.
MARCIA BIGGS: Was that scary?
BISHARA (through translator): Yes, it was so scary.
MARCIA BIGGS: She finally asked her parents to remove her from school, but she still has big dreams. I asked her what she wants to be when she grows up.
You want to be a doctor?
Like many of the children, she’s drawing an Iraqi flag.
It says, “I love Iraq,” words forbidden under the Islamic State, where the Iraqi flag was banned and members of the Iraqi army executed.
Twelve-year-old Mohamed wants to be an artist someday and is proud of his flag.
He had two uncles in the Iraqi police force.
MOHAMED, Student (through translator): They killed two of my uncles they worked for the police. ISIS killed anyone from the police.
MARCIA BIGGS: Did you spend a lot of time with your uncles? Were you really close with them?
MOHAMED (through translator): Yes. They loved me. They used to bring me toys. My father and I used to play hide and seek with them.
MARCIA BIGGS: Were you get scared that maybe your father might be hurt too?
MOHAMED (through translator): Yes. I am worried about my father and brothers. Almost all of my uncles were police, so my father was afraid.
MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a familiar fear.
As we spoke, 12-year-old Mahmoud was clearly distressed, but wanted very much to talk.
MAHMOUD, Student (through translator): ISIS was in Mosul for about two-and-a-half years. When they came to the city, we thought they were good and they wouldn’t hurt us. But they began to kill and torture people. That’s why we hated them.
MARCIA BIGGS: Anyone you know was hurt?
MAHMOUD (through translator): I didn’t see, and I don’t want to see. It was horrible and scary.
MARCIA BIGGS: He says he loved math and reading before ISIS came, and still wants to be an engineer.
MAHMOUD (through translator): I’m comfortable now that I am back to learning and studying. I can study now, which is good. I’m relieved.
MARCIA BIGGS: Do you feel safe here?
MAHMOUD (through translator): Yes. Here, I feel safe. There are people protecting us, guarding us. But we still live in a tent, and it rains a lot. It’s really affecting us.
MARCIA BIGGS: He echoes a fear we heard again and again from the mothers in the camp, the terror of ISIS replaced by an unknown future in a tent at the beginning of a cold, wet winter.
Twenty-old-year-old Hijran’s husband Fatih was an officer in the Iraqi police. When ISIS took Mosul, seven men came to their door for him.
HIJRAN, Iraq (through translator): They executed my husband because he was a policeman working for the Iraqi government. And he wouldn’t give up his weapons and surrender. They killed all the policemen because they said they were nonbelievers. They finally gave us the body a month after he died, but they wouldn’t allow us to have a proper funeral.
MARCIA BIGGS: Suddenly, a widow with two children, no money, and no job, she was devastated, but too afraid to speak out.
If she ventured outside the house without strict Islamic clothing, ISIS would torture her male relatives. Hijran and her children are here with her older sister, Hiba, and her family. They fled Mosul after Iraqi forces backed by coalition airstrikes pushed ISIS from their neighborhood.
They still have two sisters and three brothers in Mosul, so they have covered their faces to protect them from retribution — public torture and execution made routine under ISIS.
How did you explain this to your children? How did you try to protect them from this?
HIBA, Iraq (through translator): I didn’t let them do anything. I even banned them from going to school. I didn’t let them go outside. I would see torturing in the market, cutting off hands, cutting off a head. They used a lot of torture. But, thank God, I didn’t let the children see any of it.
MARCIA BIGGS: Hiba became pregnant last year and entered a deep depression. She gave birth to baby Karam at home just over a month before we met, with her husband and sister by her side, as coalition airstrikes thundered down.
HIBA (through translator): It was the hardest day in my life. I was so scared and confused. But God made it easy for me, and I gave birth. The houses were being bombed, and I was so scared.
MARCIA BIGGS: Are you afraid of the life that he’s been brought into?
HIBA (through translator): I’m worried about the weather and the cold temperatures here. Of course I’m afraid for him, for so many reasons.
MARCIA BIGGS: Aid organizations expected more people at camps like these, but for a much shorter time. As the battle for Mosul continues to grind on with no end in sight, those fleeing the battle continue to arrive in droves, and it doesn’t look like they are going anywhere anytime soon.
Maulid Warfa heads operations at UNICEF in Irbil, which runs the child-friendly space. He says his main concern is the duration of the battle and the fact that the camps were set up as emergency measures, without proper schools in the plans.
MAULID WARFA, UNICEF: What worries me the most is to have these children roaming around with no proper schooling, with no proper protection, losing their future.
Imagine if these were your children. What do you want your children to be? You want them to be going to school, you want them to be children again, you want them to be protected, you want them to be loved, you want them to be growing up as very peaceful human beings.
MARCIA BIGGS: The longer the war grinds on, the longer these families remain trapped in what human rights organizations are calling de facto detention centers.
As we drove up to the camps, we noticed parking lots filled with the cars of those who drove there when fighting again, but are now forbidden to leave.
Brigadier General Halkwat Rafaat says they could be a security threat.
BRIG. GEN. HALKWAT RAFAAT, Iraq (through translator): Leaving the camp is forbidden. They can’t leave the camp until Mosul is liberated. We keep their I.D.s with us. They will get their I.D.s when they go back to their homes.
MARCIA BIGGS: So, there’s nowhere to go? They can’t go home until they’re told that they can go home?
BRIG. GEN. HALKWAT RAFAAT (through translator): No, they can’t leave.
MARCIA BIGGS: I asked the sisters, which was worse, life here or under ISIS?
HIJRAN (through translator): Of course life here is better than ISIS. ISIS terrified people. They made us afraid of everything. But we are trapped here, and it’s like we traded one jail for another one. We simply want to leave and live our lives. We know nothing about our families in Mosul. We don’t know what is happening there.
MARCIA BIGGS: And still they come, despite the harsh conditions. We were there when 6-year-old Dema arrived from Mosul with her family off, not even yet off the bus.
“I want to say hi to my grandparents in Kirkuk and my grandparents in Irbil,” she told me, and then was overcome with emotions.
They may be less than 100 miles away, but little does she know she likely has no chance of seeing them or of leaving this camp anytime soon.
Like most of the resilient children we met, she was all smiles when we saw her again.
Are you happy here?
DEMA, 6 Years Old (through translator): Yes.
MARCIA BIGGS: Why?
DEMA (through translator): There is no bombing here.
MARCIA BIGGS: So, what do you want to do now?
DEMA (through translator): I want to play.
MARCIA BIGGS: It was a universal desire. As we left, in their tattered clothes, most without proper shoes, the children wanted nothing more than to go with us. And it was everything we could do to drive away.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Hassan Sham camp east of Mosul, Northern Iraq.
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