In June 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Mosul and quickly seized other large swathes of land across Ninewa Province in northwestern Iraq. While some families were able to flee, many of those who were unable to escape had their lives changed forever, as they were forced to live under ISIS’s brutal regime. This was particularly true for Iraqi children, as ISIS quickly implemented a series of violent and archaic changes throughout the school system. Most notably, female children were no longer permitted to attend school and, for male children, the curriculum was revised to align with ISIS’ ideology.
ISIS’ prolonged occupation of extensive territory in Ninewa, which in some cases spanned more than three years, resulted in an unprecedented levels of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance (UXO), landmines, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). ISIS used mass-produced, technologically-advanced IEDs to defend captured territory and target Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), as well as to booby-trap homes, public spaces, farm land, and infrastructure to discourage the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The Department of State, through our implementing partner Janus Global Operations has undertaken the complex and dangerous job of finding and removing these dangerous items from critical infrastructure associated with the delivery of healthcare, clean water, power, transportation, and education. Enabling the safe return of children to schools helps counter ISIS youth indoctrination, frees adults to participate in stabilization activities, and aids the return to normal life.
Tall Afar is the second-largest city in Ninewa Province and, before ISIS’ occupation, it had a population of more than 200,000 citizens. Iraqi Security Forces regained control of the city in August, 2017. In November, a Janus team visited the Tall Afar Al Shohabeya Primary School, which had been severely damaged under ISIS occupation, to determine the extent of ERW contamination. In less than two weeks, Janus cleared anti-tank projectiles, small arms, and IEDs from the building and formally handed the site over to the school’s headmaster. Janus also cleared an assortment of IEDs, rockets, and other explosive hazards from the Kiz Lisesi Secondary School, Tall Afar’s only school that provides secondary education to girls. Now that the sites have been cleared of explosive hazards, 1,650 students have safely resumed their education.
In July 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, the largest city in Ninewa Province and noted that the Government of Iraq’s top priority was to return children to school as quickly as possible. Al Thawara Primary School for Boys in West Mosul was relatively unscathed by the ISIS occupation, and students throughout Mosul traveled to attend this school. While the school itself had been cleared, explosive threats remained behind the school where the children played. Janus deployed to the Al Thawara School in mid-January 2018 and, in one day, removed several items of ERW, including a grenade. Rahim, one of the school’s 550 students, thanked the Janus clearance team for its work, noting that “I have not seen some of my friends for a long time and it’s so good to be able to run around and play together at break time.”
ISIS seized the town of Bahzani in June, 2014 and occupied the predominantly Yezidi, Shabak, and Christian community until it was pushed out by Iraqi forces in November, 2016. Janus began operations to clear the Bahzani Al-Jabal Primary School for Boys and Girls on April 1, 2017 in order to facilitate the safe restoration of the school by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Janus completed clearance operations on April 11, 2017, enabling refurbishment of the school to start the next month. The Al-Jabal Primary School is now fully functional and provides education to 740 students on a daily basis. Many of the students have returned from IDP camps in neighboring Sulaimaniyah and the schools have played a significant role in restoring normalcy to their lives. The school’s director remarked to Janus that “the reopening of our school has benefitted our community greatly, providing jobs for teachers as they move back, and a return to, or start of education for our children, some of whom have only known life in a refugee camp until now.”
U.S.-funded clearance operations across Ninewa continue to play a pivotal role by facilitating the delivery of basic social services and the safe return of IDPs to their communities. By ensuring that schools are free of explosive hazards, these programs provide a safe space for children to learn as their families rebuild their communities after ISIS.
The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of efforts to clear ERW. Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.9 billion to more than 100 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war. For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and conventional weapons destructions programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.
About the Author: Eric Keefer serves as an Assistant Program Manager in the Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.