Fear is the overriding emotion of life under the Islamic State. Fear of the rules and punishments, fear of the airstrikes that rain nightly, fear of running out of food or water or medicine. It isn't hard to see why so many that escape from the territories held by the Islamic State are traumatised. As the ISIS hold weakens, particularly in Iraq, there are more and more people fleeing from their clutches.
While everyone understands the rule of ISIS is obscenely harsh, a few of the specifics bear repeating. The religious police, known as the Hisbah, follow a strict version of Islam disavowed by the vast majority of Muslims and are ever-present. 'Crimes' include swearing - punishable by 40 lashes - and smoking.
Adel - not his real name - was just 14 when he was captured by the Islamic State for selling cigarettes. "They imprisoned me for a while, they put a bag on my head, beat me, tortured me, made me wish I would die," he said. "I was selling cigarettes, so they arrested me. They imprisoned me and I couldn't do anything. After that, I tried to leave."
During his time living under IS rule, he was subjected to their schooling. Adel said: "They changed [all] the books, teaching [us] about taking up arms and cutting children's throats, showing how to cut babies' throats...they would brainwash them and force them to join in the end."
Adel's ordeal would get worse. He remembered: "They dressed us in the orange suits, got us all ready. There was an hour-and-a-half or two left...we lost hope and prayed...we thought we were definitely going to die, [but then] the order came not to execute us...not to execute members who tried to cross." Adel is now 17 years old and is safe in the care of Save The Children.
The situation under ISIS in Iraq and Syria for children like Adel is dire, but escaping can also be incredibly traumatic. Fleeing from the Islamic State requires crossing one of the world's most dangerous strips of land, directly between the IS fighters and the oncoming Iraqi and Kurdish troops, not to mention the ever-falling Coalition bombs and the thousands of landmines that have been laid all over northern Iraq.
The offensive against ISIS in Iraq began in late 2016 and has been broadly successful, if brutal. Fighting in Mosul, the largest city in the region, has been street-to-street, with the Islamic State widely accused of using civilians, including children, as human shields. American airstrikes are constant and have often hit civilians as well as militants. The fighting on the ground has been described by a senior US general as 'the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II'.
Militarily, at least, the offensive is beginning to produce success. After nearly six months of fighting, the mosque at which the Islamic State was first proclaimed seems set to fall to the Iraqi security forces. Should it be captured, it will represent one of the biggest victories for the International Coalition in the fight against IS, as well as a huge publicity coup. However, given the ruthlessness of the IS defensive action so far, it seems clear that further attempts against them in Iraq and Syria will result in huge casualties and commensurately large numbers of refugees.
For groups like Save the Children, however, the liberation of people from the Islamic State is only the start of their work.
"We know from our work in other conflicts in the region that we only have a limited time to act" said Aram Shakaram, the charity's Deputy Country Director for Iraq. "After two years under ISIS, these children are likely to have suffered from what experts call 'toxic stress', which can occur when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity, such as extreme violence."
Shakaram continued: "That's why we've set up what we call 'Child Friendly Spaces' - essentially front-line playgroups - where children can recover, play and become children again. Our staff are there to provide Psychological First Aid. They're trained to look out for the warning signs of trauma, and follow-up with children and families we're worried about.
"In countless conflicts we've seen how a safe space can transform a child. It helps them get back on track, escape uncertainty and recover from the trauma of war. Life-saving aid like shelter, food and water are of course crucial in this crisis - but to help children recover from their ordeals, a safe space must be a priority."
For children like Adel, and the thousands of others trapped on the frontline, the need for such help is vital.
Words: Mike Meehall Wood
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