I was talking to 10-year-old Maryam when a rocket exploded to our left. It was a way off, but it was loud and I jumped. She didn’t. “When a bomb goes off she doesn’t react,” her brother Mohammed said. “It doesn’t affect her, it doesn’t affect any of us; we’re used to it.” The smiling girl with long brown hair and bright eyes was seated on Mohammed’s bicycle, parked on the sidewalk.
She was enjoying the novelty of the sight before her: eight 18-wheeler trucks lined up on one of the main roads into Mosul. The interagency convoy was the first of its kind to reach Mosul. UNICEF worked with the World Food Programme and the United Nations Population Fund to bring basic supplies: water purification tablets, food, soap, toothpaste, diapers for babies, hygiene products for women and high-energy biscuits for children.
Each agency supplied 5,000 kits, enough to last 30,000 people for one month. The trucks arrived at 9:30 am and workers quickly began the task of loading them into smaller trucks for distribution around the newly retaken areas of the city. It was a sunny day with a hazy sky, made hazier by an oil fire to the west, which had been lit that morning. It started as a wispy grey cloud and by midday had grown into a smeared charcoal stain on the horizon.
Two Apache helicopters hovered overhead, ensuring the convoy’s safety. Higher still, jet fighters left looping contrails in the pale sky. Behind the front line, a few hundred metres away, bombs thudded and automatic weapons stuttered. Some girls and boys shyly made their way to the convoy. They wanted to meet their visitors and to see one of the first tangible signs of care from the outside world.
“These children have been deprived of so many basic things for the past two years I could feel that just being there and distributing the emergency supplies was bringing them a sense of hope and a much awaited return to normal life,” said Regional Emergency Coordinator Bastien Vigneau as he and Emergency Specialist Atheer Al-Yaseen directed the huge operation that took about six hours. Mostly the children stood back as their elder relatives spoke for them.
They all had a version of the same heartbreaking story – they hadn’t been in school for two years; they’d been injured in bombing raids; they needed everything. Seven-year-old Ahmed came with his mother in search of food. His mother lifted up his track suit pants to show me the scars on his skinny legs from an aerial bombardment. Ahmed smiled shyly and allowed me to shake his hand. The family left with high-energy biscuits.
A group of young men who had been students at the University of Mosul told me that in the last two years life in the city had stopped. There was no work, no study. “We buried our cell phones in the ground,” Riad said, bringing out his phone and patting it protectively. “If we’d been found with them, we’d have been decapitated.”
The convoy was parked on one of the main routes out of town, so all day, as the unloading continued, families passed by; the lucky ones crammed into dilapidated cars with sagging tyres, the less fortunate on foot. Children staggered under heavy backpacks. Others pushed strollers laden with belongings.
One father, who declined to be named, was leaving with his 20-member family, including two elderly parents in wheelchairs. “We endured eight days of shelling before we decided to leave; we were too frightened to step outside,” he said. “Thank God we left the house when we did. It was bombed soon afterwards.” He didn’t know how he’d make it to his destination but it was likely he’d rely on the kindness of strangers.
And small acts of kindness were evident: when two women walked by the convoy, and it was clear that they didn’t have proper shoes for their journey, one young man working with our partner, Muslim Aid, took off his sneakers and offered them. The women politely declined, so he put his shoes back on. The bombing got closer as the afternoon went on. Two bombs went off; to our left and then to our right.
Our security officer advised me to stay close to the car in case we needed to evacuate. The Apache helicopters continued high above. So did the jets. Maryam remained oblivious to the noise as she collected a baby kit, a hygiene kit and high-energy biscuits – vital supplies for her family. “We need this,” Mohammed said as he strapped the boxes to the carrier rack on his bike.
“This is important for us.” Maryam didn’t seem in a hurry to leave, so I asked her whether she could ride a bicycle. She said she could, but she didn’t have one. “Maybe one day,” her brother said.
By Chris Niles