After three years living in constant fear of a terrifying regime, the psychological impacts on the children of Mosul are only just beginning to emerge.
Five-year-old Lina* doesn’t talk much. She rarely plays with other kids and at night she sleeps between her aunt and uncle, who care for her and her brother in a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq. The children’s parents are still trapped in their village on the outskirts of Mosul, where they have all lived through hunger, poverty and constant fear under ISIS rule.
When Lina arrived in the camp after escaping Mosul with another family, she was deeply depressed.
“She would totally isolate herself in the tent,” Lina’s uncle, Abdullah, says. “She’d refuse to go outside to play with the other kids, she wouldn’t talk to anyone, she would cry a lot, even in her sleep. We struggled to make her eat, or go outside the tent. Sometimes she would go silent for several days without a single word, and she would have panic attacks where she would cry hysterically if she heard men arguing or any loud noise, sometimes even without a reason.”
Lina is one of 1.5 million Iraqi children who have been forced to flee their home. Millions of others have stayed in Mosul, enduring a life of fear and deprivation.
While the story for each child is different, their experiences of war, violence, separation and uncertainty have the potential to permanently scar their minds, and to significantly impact their futures.
The hidden impacts of trauma
A new report released by Save the Children examines the heartbreaking accounts of children caught up in the conflict. They talk of ‘monsters’, ‘dead bodies in the streets’, ‘bloodied faces’, and ‘bombs falling on their homes’, and some describe their terrifying escape from Mosul; being shot at, injured or separated from family.
Exposure to these kinds of horrific experiences is causing children to suffer from toxic stress – the most dangerous form of stress response – which can have severe long-term consequences if they don’t receive adequate support.
Toxic stress can affect a child’s cognitive, emotional and physical development by impacting the architecture of the developing brain in the early years, with repercussions lingering well into adulthood.
While some children understand that they are now out of reach of ISIS, many still fear violent attacks from the armed group and have nightmares that are so vivid they haunt them during the day.
Reliving the nightmare
Niveen*, 12 years old, no longer wants to return to the home she once loved.
“The feeling of fear is still haunting me,” she explains. “I am still afraid of being alone ... I always feel like something is following me and wants to harm me. Sometimes when I go to sleep I get so scared that I can’t even close my eyes. I always try to sleep before my siblings do. I feel safer knowing that someone I trust is awake and around me.
“Sometimes I have nightmares. I see myself lying in my bed, and the curtains are shaking, and someone is sneaking in the room and trying to choke me! Other times I see my mum dying! It’s awful and it always keeps me scared from going back to sleep.”
Not yet capable of moving past the atrocities they witnessed, many children are continuously reliving events from the war; scenes of violence, destruction, injured people and dead bodies.
Rebuilding lives through healing and support
Prioritizing the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents is a key step that humanitarian agencies, donors, local authorities and the wider international community must take if they hope to achieve the vision of long-term peace and stability in Iraq.
Save the Children is one of the first line responders when it comes to child-centred programming with a focus on protection and education. Our activities in Iraq include:
Lina is being supported by one of Save the Children’s case management teams. They visit her regularly and are trying to help her out of her depression, however, she’s still in need of more attention and more support.
Niveen has started going to school where she’s made new, supportive friends who can share their experiences and help each other emerge from their loneliness.
Continued support for children through these kinds of services is critical to the future of Iraq. The country will depend on an educated, productive and engaged young population to rebuild the foundations of a society that can prosper in the long term.
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