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What Life Was Like for Young Women Living Under ISIS

"My mom’s hair and skin were all over the walls. We've cleaned it off, but when we came back here, I remember what happened and I think of our family."

by Harriet Hernando
Nov 22 2017, 6:00pm

Salih holding photos of her destroyed home. Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

After a nine-month battle, ISIS was finally expelled from Mosul earlier this year, leaving devastation and destruction in its wake—homes lie in ruins, and residents bear the physical and psychological scars of war.

Teenagers have grown up knowing a life only of conflict. Born in the time of the Iraq war, they saw their country occupied by the US-led coalition, before coming of age in an era blighted by the brutality of ISIS, with Mosul under the control of the jihadist group for three years. Many suffered unimaginable trauma and hardship—but they are determined to raise their country from the rubble.

Oxfam (where, full disclosure, I work) is warning about the long-term consequences for a generation of Iraqis coming of age in war. The international agency’s report "We Have Forgotten What Happiness Is" tells of the trauma suffered during the ISIS occupation.

Years of education were lost, and women were prisoners in their own homes, only able to go out with a male chaperone. Then the fighting came. Fifteen-year-old Malak’s mom and sister were killed when her home was bombed, and Salih’s ten-year-old sister was killed in an airstrike. Seventeen-year-old Zahra’s legs were broken when rubble fell on top of her. Remarkably, these young girls are now the torchbearers for a brighter future for their county.

Zahra wants to be a teacher, Salih wants to be a tailor, and Malak wants to go back to school. Here, they tell VICE their stories.

Names have been changed to protect their identities.

Zahra, 17

Zahra photographed in her home in Qayarreh sub district, which was retaken from ISIS in late 2016. Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

I grew up here and knew everyone here. I was happy until my uncle was kidnapped. When ISIS came, we wanted to escape, but they would execute anyone trying to leave, so we decided to stay.

I felt very unsafe, so I just stayed at home. ISIS would use any excuse to kill people. I was so scared. If I went outside, I would have to cover my face and hands; I would have to be escorted by a man—that’s not freedom.

Three days before our village was liberated, we left. A house behind ours was bombed, and then half of our house was bombed, and my legs were broken. I managed to escape with my mother, brother, and sister. My father stayed, as he was scared they would take our house. We went to Kirkuk, Iraq, to get treatment for my broken legs.

I feel safe now that ISIS is gone. I'm back in school now. I would like to study and work later after I finish. I'm very happy we came back to our village, and that all of the families are together again. I want to be educated and become a teacher. I want to stay here because I belong here. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want everyone to study and be educated and rebuild Iraq again.

Salih, 20

Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

When ISIS came, they forced us to cover and not go outside alone. We tried to escape, but ISIS didn’t let us go anywhere.

The most difficult thing about living under ISIS was that they didn’t allow us to go out alone. They made announcements from the mosque that if a girl went out alone or didn't cover, they would take a brother and kill him.

We wanted to leave, but it was so scary because if ISIS saw families trying to leave, they would execute them. When the fighting started at home, there were airstrikes, and my ten-year-old sister was killed, and my father was injured.

[My family fled, and when the fighting stopped,] my mother and father asked us if we wanted to come back, and we said yes. They said to us, "Even if your house is destroyed, you want to go home?" And we said yes.

I'm happy now because ISIS is gone, but I'm unhappy because I'm not in my own home, and my sister died. I think about that a lot. I want us to rebuild our house again in the same place. I want to stay in the village—all of my family and relatives are here—but I’m afraid that ISIS will come back again.

I wish I could wake up one day to find that we have rebuilt our house, and I would have a sewing machine to sew clothes.

Malak, 15

Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Many people left during the fighting, but we stayed with the army. But then a mortar bomb from ISIS hit my house and my mother and sister died, and my father was injured.

My mom’s hair and skin were all over the walls. We’ve cleaned it off, but when we come back here, I remember what happened and I think of our family. It makes me sad because I miss them.

We went to a camp, and I had to take care of my little brother, who still wanted to be breastfed. I didn’t want to stay in the camp; I wanted to be in our village. The weather was so hot it was difficult to be in the tent. It was so difficult for me. I used to cook and make bread, and no one helped me—my father was disabled and injured.

We came back this summer, but our house was destroyed; we're now staying at my grandfather’s house. I feel free now: I can go anywhere and move because it’s safe. I'm not happy, though—everything is OK, but I lost my mother and sister.

I want to finish my education first and then get married. I would like to go to Mosul; I prefer it there because it’s a big place, and everything is there.

If I could wake up and all my dreams had come true, we would have a new house, better conditions, more money, and a new life where everything is safe.