The village of Hasansham, which until a few months ago was the scene of heavy fighting, has a surreal quality.
It’s situated in a beautiful, seemingly tranquil river valley; one that’s dotted by stark stone outcrops. The houses are either a drab sandy colour, or bare concrete. As such, they blend with the arid countryside, so it’s a minute or two before driving through that you realize what’s wrong; some houses are intact, others are bombed to a low pile of rubble, many more had simply sunk to their foundations, as if they had suddenly become weary of standing.
We saw nobody there because the village is not yet safe to return to.
Hasansham camp, about a kilometre away, is by contrast, bright and new and very busy.
Private cars are parked haphazardly on a hill outside the main entrance. They bear a green license plate that indicates they’re from Mosul. Many are loaded high with household possessions, and still fly the white flags of non-combatants.
Once in the camp there are lines everywhere.
People queue for food, water, blankets and mattresses. The main street, freshly laid out, is flocked with people groaning under loads of bottled water, sacks of rice, and heaters. On a side street UNICEF and its partners quickly distribute more than 500 emergency kits, which contain a week’s household supplies for 2,204 people.
We visited the camp’s temporary learning space, which consists of tents that have, for the meantime, been pressed into service as accommodation because of the overwhelming need for tents. Dozens of children seemed oblivious to this inconvenience as they played happily outside in the soft autumn sunshine; boys doing calisthenics, girls drumming up small dust clouds with their skipping ropes.
It’s not going to stay warm and dry for long. Iraq’s winters are cold and wet, and the soil in the valley is clay, so it drains poorly.
The concern for the changing of the seasons was evident earlier in the morning when we visited nearby Khazir camp, which is more than full. It was built for about 6,000 people and there are now about 8,500; all had arrived within days. The day before 2,500 people had come en masse and camp authorities were racing to find a place to accommodate them.
We met Bushra in one of the long lines that had formed. She told us she had been in the camp for less than a week with her five young sons. She had walked for seven hours to get to the camp and she needed everything. She needed a stove to cook with. She was worried about what her children were going to wear when it got cold. Some of her friends queuing with her said they didn’t have shoes. They pulled up their abayas and put their feet out so we could see they wore only sandals.
It’s hard to fully express the astounding grace, resilience and good humour that, in my experience, Iraqis of all ages have demonstrated in the crisis that has enveloped them in the last two years, but Bushra and her friends typified it.
Yes, they had complaints about their living conditions. Yes, they had literally walked away from everything they owned and now had to stand in line for life’s necessities, yet still they were cheerful, open, friendly, and had clear and focused eye to the future. When we asked them what their main concern was for their children, they responded in unison, and without hesitation – “education.”
Even though they don’t have shoes to wear, or a shower, or a stove, or toilet of their own, their overriding concern is for their children’s learning. “The first thing is school,” Bushra said. “We can’t go home, so we need to send our children to school.”
Chris Niles is an Emergency Communication Specialist, UNICEF Iraq.