* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
We can't turn our backs on the 11 mln Iraqis who will require vital humanitarian assistance for months, even years to come as they continue to search for a safe place to rebuild their lives
Today saw a historic moment: ISIS no longer controls any towns in Iraq. It’s final defeat in Rawa on the border with Syria follows hot on the trail of a series of losses, most spectacularly in Mosul, where the leader of ISIS first declared a new caliphate. However, my experiences over the past year have taught me this is just the beginning of the journey to rebuild Iraq.
I have met Iraqi families across the country who were forced to flee their homes, either to escape ISIS’ harsh regime, or to avoid getting caught up in the Coalition-backed military campaign to defeat the group.
Every person I have met has a story. I have heard tragic tales of families separated and loved ones killed, of homes destroyed, and of children who missed years of schooling. Even for people from areas where ISIS was expelled months ago, I have met many who are still stuck in limbo, unable or unwilling to return home. Those who have returned face further hardships as they struggle to recover and restart their lives.
I will never forget the story of Dunya, who was just two weeks old when I met her with her mother in a dusty camp on the outskirts of Mosul. While she was being born in a nearby neighbourhood, her father and four siblings were killed in a Coalition airstrike as they eagerly awaited her arrival at home. Before she even opened her eyes, she had lost more than most of us can imagine.
A third of homes in Mosul’s Old City were destroyed by some of the fiercest urban warfare seen in recent years. Although ISIS was pushed out of west Mosul in July, mines left over from the battle continue to pose a deadly threat to people’s lives. Such dangerous conditions are putting many people still in vital need of aid out of reach. With winter fast approaching I’m worried for the families who will have to spend freezing months in damaged and crowded houses, without power and heating.
In Ramadi, retaken from ISIS 18 months ago, I met a family forced to flee after an ISIS bomb destroyed their home. Fatima* and her four sons spent eight months in a camp struggling to get by. The heat was unbearable and the children were often sick, so they felt they had no choice but to return to Ramadi.
I met them in their current ‘home’ - a damaged school building. They can’t afford to repair their own house which they had saved for years to build. Fatima told me how her niece was killed by a mine as she played in the street, so she doesn’t let her kids out anymore. The family have no income, and don’t feel safe when darkness falls as they can’t afford to buy power from the generator and the city electricity doesn’t run all the time.
The deep trauma of what Iraqis have been through is another reason why recovery will take time. In Ramadi, I also met Hamed* from western Anbar who said ISIS sowed so much fear and distrust that by the time he finally escaped he no longer even trusted his own brother. He told me how his children were so afraid of airstrikes that they slept with their hands over their ears. Today the children still run to their father whenever they hear loud noises.
In this crucial moment, the international community must not turn our backs on Dunya, Fatima and Hamed, and the 11 million Iraqis like them who will require vital humanitarian assistance for months, even years to come as they continue to search for a safe place to rebuild their lives.
Jessica Wanless works in Iraq for the International Rescue Committee, which is supporting families across the country overcome trauma, start up their own businesses and get children back in the classroom.
* Name changed to protect identities