(Reuters) Thousands of children have been separated from their parents in the nine-month battle for Mosul and the preceding years of ISIS rule in northern Iraq – some found wandering alone and afraid among the rubble, others joining the refugee exodus from the pulverized city.
In some cases their parents have been killed. Families have been split up as they fled street fighting, air strikes or Islamic State repression. Many are traumatized from the horrors they have endured.
Protecting the youngsters and reuniting them with their families is an urgent task for humanitarian organizations.
“These children are extremely vulnerable,” said Mariyampillai Mariyaselvam, a child protection specialist with UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund). “Most have gone through a very painful history.”
Nine-year-old Meriam had left her family one day last October to visit her grandmother in west Mosul, then under Islamic State rule. The government offensive to recapture the city began, so she stayed there.
Her father Hassan told Reuters he had been a policeman but quit when the radical Islamists seized Mosul in 2014, fearing he would be targeted. He, his second wife, along with Meriam and her three half-siblings moved from dwelling to dwelling.
“We were living in many different places, moving around. Meriam stayed with her grandmother but when the bridges were shut down, I could not cross the river to see her,” he said, speaking in the abandoned, half-built house in east Mosul where the family is now squatting.
They eventually fled to the Hassan Sham displaced persons camp but Meriam was trapped in the west.
After government forces retook the neighborhood in June, she and her grandmother made it to the Khazer camp. Her father asked UNICEF for help and they managed to track down his daughter. They were reunited in Hassan Sham later that month.
“I was hearing bombing and killing every day. I did not believe they would find her,” he said.
Life is still hard for the family. They left the camp to return to the city with their few possessions, but the house owner wants to evict them. Hassan makes ends meet by finding day jobs. But at least they are together, he said, cuddling his daughter as he spoke.
Meriam, a bright-eyed girl with a shy smile, said she would like to go to school.
“I have never been to school. I would like to have books, a backpack, and to learn letters. That is my dream,” she said.