The fourth time 12-year-old Mohammed Mowaffaq tried to escape from Mosul, Iraq, fighters captured him and held a knife to his neck, threatening his life, he says.
“My mother cried and begged them not to,” he recalled as he shared stories of his failed attempts to flee the besieged, war-torn city with the United Nations’ child rights agency, UNICEF.
But his mother “later told me I had to leave because boys my age were being recruited to fight,” said Mowaffaq, whose father was killed three years ago. “Our life was good until [fighters] came from nowhere, and war started. We used to go to school, but they destroyed even that. They ruined everything. People starved to death.”
Children living in the violence-plagued region of northern Iraq have regularly been targeted and attacked as the three-year war between the country’s government and the self-proclaimed Islamic State rages on, says a new UNICEF report, titled “Nowhere to Go.”
Since the conflict erupted in early 2014 when ISIS seized large portions of Iraq, some 1,075 children have been killed and 1,130 wounded, according to the report. Those figures include 152 deaths and 255 injuries so far this year.
Thousands of children have been separated from their families, and millions are unable to attend school on a regular basis, the report says. School buildings and hospitals are frequently targeted or caught in the crossfire of violence. Of the approximately 20 million children in Iraq, more than 5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, the report says.
“Across Iraq, children continue to witness sheer horror and unimaginable violence,” said Peter Hawkins, a UNICEF representative in Iraq. “They have been killed, injured, abducted and forced to shoot and kill in one of the most brutal wars in recent history.”
The conflict has displaced 3 million people ― half of whom are children, according to the report. Boys and girls in the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi are often “trapped in cycles of violence,” the report says, “turning childhoods into nightmares of brutality, displacement and loss,” and leaving them vulnerable to the effects of poverty, exploitation and abuse.
Warring parties, including ISIS, have recruited boys in Mosul to partake in combat. These child soldiers and trainees range in age from 3- to 16-years-old, according to a Reuters story.
Several young boys told UNICEF that they could not attend school because they had to provide for their families.
“I wish I could go back to school, but my family has no one else to support them,” a 12-year-old boy, identified only as Fares, told the humanitarian agency. “I would be happy to be in school. My friends are there. I want to go back and learn to read and write.”
Mowaffaq, with his mother urging him to go, finally managed to escape Mosul with his cousin. They ducked gunfire and mortars, he said, before reaching a safe place.
Months later, Mowaffaq’s mother fled the city with her other children and, with the help of UNICEF and its partner organizations, reunited with her son. The family’s current location has been withheld to protect their safety.
“I don’t even know how we escaped,” she later told UNICEF. “It was like a story from a book.”