Australian Outlook

In this section

Forgotten Conflicts 2022: Four Years On, the Effects of Conflict Reverberate in Iraq

21 Jan 2022
By Muyassar Mansour
Eight-year-old Yasin plays in rubble. Source: Mike KHALAF/ICRC

Four years after the violence ended, the once flourishing city of Mosul still bears the scars of fighting. As in many other conflict-affected areas across Iraq, Mosul still faces multiple challenges. 

Children play in the rubble of deserted neighbourhoods and there are ruins as far as the eye can see. The old city on the west bank of the Tigris river, known as the jewel of Mosul, still lies in ruins. The population must grapple with the economic ramifications of war, water and electricity shortages, weapon contamination, and a poor health structure that has been overstretched due to COVID-19.

Eight-year-old Yasin plays in the ruins of what used to be a mosque. Despite the notices warning of unexploded ordnance, the boy and his friends play fearlessly in this desolate environment. Iraq is one of the countries that is most heavily contaminated by explosive ordnances in the world — millions are exposed to the risk of mines and explosive remnants of war.

The children look for the white flags marking the buildings that have been cleared of mines. Then they start digging in the piles of rubble, on the hunt for anything of value that can be resold. As a main source of income, this activity means they also venture into non-cleared areas.

“There are some dangerous places here that we are not allowed to play in because of mines,” says Yaqeen, age eleven. She lives in Mosul’s old city and remembers a time before the war. “Before the conflict, we had a shop here and I had friends,” she says. “We used to go out and play.”

Despite extensive efforts made by the local authorities and the international community to remove mines and unexploded devices, many of Mosul’s former residents have not returned because of the remaining hidden unexploded ordnance. Grenades, bombs, and rockets lie in wait for the innocent. All it takes is one false move for lives to be changed forever.

The fighting may be over, but the devastating consequences of recent conflicts are still felt, not only in Mosul, but across Iraq. Thousands of people who fled fighting are unable or unwilling to come back. Without the huge investment needed to rebuild cities, homes, vital infrastructure and business opportunities are rare. The pace of reconstruction is slow. Even though some basic infrastructure, such as sewers and roads, has been repaired in various areas, much more needs to be done, particularly in terms of homes and health care.

Like most areas affected by conflict around the world, climate change and environmental degradation are amplified by the consequences of conflict. Of the 20 countries considered the most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are enduring or have endured an armed conflict. In Iraq, where rains are scarce and sandstorms are increasingly common, an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff member mused: “Before, rain was falling. Now, dust is falling.”

People are acutely aware that environmental and climate change factors are making their lives harder by threatening their access to water and food, their economic security, and affecting their sense of dignity as they struggle to meet their families’ needs. Areas like the southern Governorate of Basra face similar challenges, as well as the heavy impacts of climate change. Millions of palm trees have been lost due to conflict and climate change, extreme heat is more frequent, and desertification has decimated the agricultural sector.

“War can weaken the environment and upturn lives long after the guns have fallen silent,” said Igor Malgrati, the ICRC’s regional water and habitat advisor. “In Southern Iraq, you have an environment that has been damaged by years of conflict, poor environmental management and weak governance. When you add climate change into the mix, you have the perfect storm.”

Average temperatures in Iraq have risen by at least 0.7°C over the last century, while extreme heat is becoming more frequent. Rainfall is on a slight downward trend in the south-east of the country. According to local authorities, historically fertile areas in Southern Iraq are simply disappearing. The salination of water and soil, a widespread issue in Iraq, is getting worse in the south.

The situation is bleak, and it is a challenge to survive in this inhospitable environment, but some families have returned. Others never left and endured the terrible consequences of war, felt Iraq-wide — but the impacts of the war are no longer in the media, and appears to have faded into history for the rest of the world.

Ghanem is one such resident who has lived through conflict. He was eight years old in 2017 when he was at home in West Mosul and a rocket hit his house. He lost his leg there and then. The scene was so horrific that his mother was too afraid to even pick him up and seek help. “He was in pain and screaming, there was blood everywhere,” recounts his mother, Anwar.

The recovery was long and painful for a boy who, like most of his age, used to enjoy racing around. After two long years of being immobile, he was fitted with a prosthetic leg at the physical rehabilitation centre in Mosul, supported by the ICRC.

An artificial leg has meant Ghanem can reclaim his childhood. “I can run, play ball and go to the store again,” he says. “I went once with my friends to the market and I was walking so fast that they lost track of me. I had to walk home by myself,” he says with a smile.

In the first quarter of 2022, the ICRC will inaugurate in Erbil, Northern Iraq, the biggest physical rehabilitation centre in the country —  it will also be one of the biggest rehabilitation centres in the Middle East. The need for this centre is apparent at every turn in Mosul and neighbouring governorates. Physiotherapy services, counselling for families, and a workshop for making prosthetics, like the one Ghanem now uses, will be offered.

Overcoming the trauma of that terrible day will not be easy for anyone in the family. Ghanem and his family also lost a brother and a sister in the blast. Humanitarian aid will not be enough. The long-term needs of conflict remain high.

Displaced, returning, and resident populations continue to face immediate needs for water, healthcare, shelter, food security, mental health, and physical rehabilitation, among other needs. A recent study by the ICRC found that fewer than 15 percent of people on Mosul’s left bank — the eastern half of the city — currently have enough water to meet their daily needs. On the right bank, this number was higher, but was still only 35 percent. This is partly because the war destroyed vital infrastructure, such as water pumping stations.

The conflict may have ended, but people’s needs in cities like Mosul and Basra — as well as the wider country — are still huge. The extent of the damage means that humanitarian aid alone will not be enough. Iraq will require continued national and international investment to repair its deeply damaged infrastructure and to ensure communities have access to basic services like shelter, water, electricity, and health care.

Muyassar Mansour is a Communication Field Officer at the ICRC Mosul Sub-Delegation.

This article is part of the “Forgotten Conflicts” series by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with the AIIA, highlighting the serious and often overlooked humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts and other situations of violence. It is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.