More than 80 schools have reopened and almost 60,000 students have returned to classrooms in the devastated western part of Mosul in Iraq. But thousands of children remain traumatised and are still suffering dreadfully.
Some have even been found hiding in tunnels under the war-torn city - the country's second largest. Much of west Mosul was razed to the ground during the battle between Iraqi military forces and Islamic State (ISIL), which was defeated earlier this month. ISIL had chased Iraqi forces from Mosul in 2014 and proclaimed the ancient Iraqi city as the capital of their so-called caliphate.
But the Iraqi government began an offensive last October to recapture Mosul and declared victory over the militants on July 9. The terrorist group had ruled Mosul’s population with fear and tens of thousands of children were denied an education - mostly girls.
When the militants seized Mosul in 2014, they began closing down or bringing schools under their control and implementing their own curriculum. Most parents pulled their children out altogether, fearing they would be indoctrinated by extremist influences.
But now some local schools are getting back to normal. Many have been reopening in both the east and west of the city, allowing many children to return to education. In west Mosul, 83 schools - 59 of which have received supplies from the United Nations children's agency UNICEF - have reopened, catering for an estimated 58,800 students.
At least 336 schools have reopened in east Mosul, allowing 288,500 students to go back to school - 214 of these schools are supported by UNICEF. “Many of these students are sitting their exams,” said Sharon Behn Nogueira of UNICEF. She added that the main challenges in west Mosul are unexploded ordnance and ensuring that there is safe drinking water.
“All schools must be checked and cleared (of live bombs) and four out of five water treatment plants in west Mosul are not functioning,” she said. Many schools in west Mosul are in need of repair and there is also little or no electricity available. Another problem is overcrowding as many students want to return to school but not all of them are ready yet.
There is also a lack of school supplies and payment of teachers’ salaries is a problem. Nogueira said that the Ninewah Directorate of Education (DoE) is the body responsible for the city’s education sector.
She added: “UNICEF and its partners work closely with the DoE to move as fast as possible to provide these services to the children of Mosul. "The children are currently sitting exams, but then the schools in east Mosul will close at the end of July for the summer and the new term will start in September.
“Schools in west Mosul will stay open longer so that children can catch up with the curriculum.” Another urgent issue is getting resources to support children who may be traumatised. Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The worst of the violence in Mosul may be over but for too many children in Mosul, and in the region, extreme suffering continues.
“Children in shock continue to be found, some reportedly among the debris or hidden in tunnels in Mosul. Some children have lost their families while fleeing to safety. "According to reports, families have been forced to abandon their children or give them away. They are now living in fear, alone. Many children have been forced to fight and some to carry out acts of extreme violence.
“These are horrific times for far too many children in Iraq and other conflict-affected countries in the region.” UNICEF said that the “needs in Mosul, and indeed in other parts of Iraq, are so great that psychological support remains a gap countrywide”.
The UN agency works with partners to provide psychosocial rather than psychological assistance. Jennifer Sparks of UNICEF explained that psychological support falls in the field of medical support while psychosocial activities are done under the auspices of child protection.
She added: “Psychosocial Support (PSS) is a non-specialised field where teachers and community members can support children to cope with the new circumstances. "However, UNICEF works with partners that integrates professional expertise from psychologists and social workers.”
“In conjunction with working with trained specialists, UNICEF supports other partners in providing recreational activities to children in six schools in east Mosul to date. "Activities in an additional 20 schools - 16 in the east that serve children displaced from the west; and four additional schools in west Mosul - will start at the beginning of the new school year (mid-August).”
Elsewhere in Iraq, there are three million children who do not have regular access to formal education. Half of schools are in need of repair and, as a result, many run multiple shifts to accommodate all the students. UNICEF said that around 355,000 internally displaced children remain out of school in Iraq.
In conflict-affected governorates such as Salah al-Din and Diyala, more than 90% of school-age children are out of the education system. Nogueira said: “Despite some successes in increases in primary school enrolments, investment in education and its infrastructure has been low for many years.
"The 2016 budget for education was less than 5.7% and the infrastructure budget has fallen from 94 billion Iraqi dinar ($80 million) to 15 billion Iraqi dinar ($12 million) over the past three years. She added: “A major increase in investment in education is required to address the damage of the conflict but also to rejuvenate the education system.”
More than 900,000 people were displaced by the fight to retake Mosul from extremists. Some have since returned home, but many are still sheltering in UNHCR-built camps on the outskirts of Mosul, renting, staying with friends or family or living in war-damaged buildings.