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Iraq: “We didn’t see anything of life.” The widows of Aden, east Mosul

01 Sep 2017
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Credit: OCHA/Themba Linden

In the blue-painted back room of a kindergarten in Aden, a neighbourhood in east Mosul, a group of women sit in the dust, children on their laps or crowded at their feet. The room is cool, shaded from the day’s heat. A breeze blows in through the broken windows. As they talk, the women stroke their children’s heads and shoulders.

Back in November, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were barricaded in Aden. Fighting was intense and accompanied by heavy bombardment from the air. Most of the residents had already fled for the safety of camps, but in the growing cold of late autumn, those who remained hid under the stairs and in cellars as the battle raged around them, burning furniture to stay warm. The group of women, around half of them widowed when ISIL executed their husbands, remained behind.

Lilya* is one of those women. Her husband was killed by ISIL after they took control of Mosul in 2014. When the fighting started, she and her two children stayed in their house in the nearby Quds neighbourhood. Her neighbour, Rana,* was left a widow with two small children. “My husband was an imam (holy man),” says Rana. “ISIL wanted him to join them, but when he refused they killed him.”

After the deaths of their husbands, the two women learned to live without a regular income. Women were not permitted to work under the ISIL regime. “We learned to eat less, to have tea instead of breakfast,” says Lilya. “Our neighbours helped when they could, but when no one could help we just ate less.”

Rana nods in agreement. “Things are better since ISIL left, but we still have to borrow money to live. If I had only 50,000 dinars (US$40) a month, I could look after my children. Sometimes I sell things from the house to pay for the medicine my daughter needs for her eye condition.”

“We are more comfortable now ISIL have gone and the fighting has stopped,” adds Lilya. “Yes we need safety and security, but we also need everything else. We need regular incomes to feed and clothe our children. Our children need futures.”

Pictures of faces were forbidden under ISIL. Credit: OCHA/Kate Pond

On the kindergarten walls are brightlycoloured drawings of people busy at simple daily tasks: cleaning their teeth, feeding animals or posting a letter. But the faces have all been defaced in black marker pen. “ISIL did that,” says Lilya. “Pictures of faces are haram (forbidden). They would punish us for having photos of our families in our homes. If we went outside, even in the garden, without a niqab, they would fine us 50,000 dinars.”

Even before ISIL’s occupation, Mosul had stricter observances and fewer employment opportunities for women than in other Iraqi cities. Like many women in Mosul, Lilya and Rana are housewives, and only Lilya finished high school. Neither ever had a paid job, and the only commercially viable skills they have are domestic, such as cooking, cleaning and sewing.

Rana was married at 19, and some of the other women in the group were married even younger. “During the ISIL time, more girls were married young,” says a third woman, Aisha,* sitting with a plump baby girl fidgeting in her lap. “I was 18. Some others were as young as 14 or 15. We hope this will end now ISIL have gone.”

“We didn’t see anything of life,” Rana says, shaking her head. She has tears in her eyes. “We got married, and then we became widows.”

“ISIL took everything from us,” adds Lilya. “They destroyed our dreams. Our children have lost their fathers.”

Rebuilding lives and livelihoods

Outside the kindergarten, a long queue forms under the midday sun, as people arrive to collect vouchers to exchange for $500 worth of food, household goods and items to repair damage to their houses from an international aid organization. The distribution, run by the INGO ZOA, is part of a programme running in several neighbourhoods of east Mosul supported by the Iraq Humanitarian Pooled Fund.

Numerous people with visible injuries are waiting in line. One silent woman is on crutches. Her friend says her right leg was badly injured in an air strike. “It killed her five-year-old son,” she says, her face twisted in distress. “He died in her lap.”

Tarmouk neighbourhood, west Mosul. Credit: OCHA/Themba Linden

The two women gesture to a flowerbed in the grounds. It is full of small mounds and patchy, stunted shrubs. “We buried him there,” says the friend, pointing to one of the mounds. “The fighting was too intense and we couldn’t get to the graveyard, so we buried our children here.” The shadow of conflict is long for the people who live through it. They have lost homes, loved ones, incomes; their health and well-being. Like much of east Mosul, the impact of the conflict is light in Aden compared with the utter devastation of the Old City in the west. Rebuilding efforts are under way, as are programmes to boost incomes, such as the voucher distribution for food and household items in the kindergarten in Aden. But for Lilya, Rana, and their friends and neighbours, rebuilding is not just about bricks and mortar. Their lives were shattered by the ISIL regime and the subsequent battle to remove it.

When the women talk about life under ISIL, they do it with humour and without bitterness. But there is also the memory of suffering, close to the surface. For them, as for many other women, girls, boys and men affected by the recent conflict, recovery will be long, and it will not be easy. “But we still have hope,” says Lilya, as the other women nod in agreement. “Inshallah (God willing), things will get better.”

*All names have been changed.