Soccer balls are bouncing again and schools are reopening their doors in eastern Mosul, a city in Iraq where government troops recently wrest back control from Islamic State militants.
The estimated 180,000 Iraqis who fled when the battle to retake the city began in October are cautiously starting to return, said UNICEF Iraq representative Peter Hawkins from his office in Baghdad this week.
An estimated 20,000 Iraqis have come back so far, shuttled by government buses from camps outside the city. Their departure frees up space in the camps for the anticipated influx of Iraqis when the military operation to retake the western part of Mosul begins at some point, he said.
“It’s amazing how resilient the people are given all that they’ve been through,” said Hawkins, who visited Mosul last week. “The most amazing part was seeing women walking around the streets and children playing games,” like soccer.
Residents are seeing what is left of their homes. Water pipelines, destroyed during the fighting, still need repairs. In the meantime, more than 300,000 gallons of water are trucked in every day, said Hawkins.
The 30 schools that reopened needed to be checked and re-checked for unexploded devices left there by the militants. Textbooks, like the math book pictured below, were replaced with non-violent ones.
Children got much-delayed vaccinations against measles and polio, which they hadn’t received during the two years that the Islamic State militants were in charge. The World Health Organization and its partner organizations set up a field hospital to treat gunshot and mine wounds. Hawkins said UNICEF also is working to provide specialized care for girls who suffered sexual and other abuse at the hands of the militants.
“The key now is to help them resume their normal way of life and break that cycle of violence and grievance very common in that part of the world,” he said.
The city still has its dangers, such as the possibility of a counterattack by militants in the western part of the city, he added, but the children know when they go to school, they are in a safe place.