“ISIS changed my life – they cut happiness from me.” – Malak’s story

November 29, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Malak washing dishes (Photo: Oxfam)


“ISIS changed my life. They didn’t let me go anywhere, they cut happiness from me. I couldn’t even go outside in the sun – even if my father was there.” Fifteen year old Malak stands by the window in the house she and her family used to call home. She’s quiet, shy, and deeply sad.


Like the majority of people in her village, which sits around 60km south of Mosul in Iraq’s Qayyarah subdistrict, Malak and her family lived under ISIS control for just over two years. She watched as her once happy life was turned upside down. At just 12 years old she was exposed to daily brutalities, seeing neighbours homes bombed, and watching the police she relied on being taken away, beaten and killed. Food, water and electricity slowly became less available, and eventually Malak’s education and freedoms were all taken away from her, forcing her to spend day after day trapped inside the house.


“When ISIS arrived, they bombed the checkpoints. They used to beat or kill Iraqi Security Forces and Police and bomb their houses. Life was very bad, we suffered a lot; everyone suffered. ISIS didn’t let us go outside and, if I did, I had to cover myself entirely. They didn’t let us go to school and I couldn’t visit my relatives on my own; nothing was allowed. I didn’t see my grandmother for three years.”

Malak’s father Hazam Ismael (photograph: Oxfam)

In 2014 when ISIS took control of the Qayyarah area families lost their income – their government jobs as teachers and doctors stopped paying and their cattle was often taken by the militants. The only education on offer was an ISIS curriculum which most families decided not to take. Girls were forced to cover their entire bodies when leaving the house, including eventually their eyes, and had to be accompanied by a male chaperone at all times if they did venture out. Young men and boys were often targeted by ISIS who tried to recruit them or punish them for their family’s wrong doings.


“Before ISIS life was wonderful; it was heaven. I was going to Mosul and Qayyarah and visiting relatives; I could go out on my own. But ISIS changed my life, ISIS destroyed my future; they stopped my education when I wanted to go to school.”


And as if families in the villages and town of Qayyarah hadn’t been exposed to enough in the two years they were governed by ISIS, as the offensive to retake Mosul and Iraq from ISIS reached them, people were exposed to new brutalities, being caught between the front lines, seeing their homes bombed and their family and friends die as they tried to escape the fighting. Many of the youth in Qayyarah saw their parents and siblings killed, either by ISIS or in the fighting to retake the area from them. Malak is one of those young people.


Whilst most families escaped when the fighting to retake Malak’s village started, her family decided to stay and wait it out. Little did they know that decision would have terrible consequences and be forever laced with regret. Malak fiddles with her headscarf as she tries to tell the story of what happened. “Many people left during the fighting but we stayed with the army. But then a mortar from ISIS hit my home and my mother and sister died and my father was injured. The Iraqi Army took them all to hospital but my mother and sister died on the way.”

Malak passes by her mother’s grave (photograph: Oxfam)

Malak’s father, Hazem, puts his arm around his daughters’ shoulders and looks up to the ceiling of the room they stand in. “The mortar came through the roof and landed on my wife and child as they slept. Shrapnel cut her from her head to her waist. My other daughter was thrown across the room because it was so strong. My wife’s hair and skin was all over the wall. We’ve cleaned it off now but when we come here we remember what happened and we think of our family. It makes us sad because we miss them.”


Malak’s mother and sister are buried just in front of the house in a grave marked only with stones. Standing by the earth that covers her mother’s bones Malak remembers how she was left alone after the mortar hit their house: her mother dead and her father in hospital injured, she had to take care of her siblings in a camp for the displaced. “In the camp, the conditions were good but I did not have my mother and my father, I felt alone. I had to take care of my little brother who still wanted to be breastfed. I was suffering for him.”


The current internal conflict in Iraq, the displacement it has caused and the now increasing number of people returning home, coupled with political and economic crises facing the country, are just the latest in a series of ongoing upheavals that “Generation 2000,” young people who came of age after the U.S.-led invasion and in the midst of sectarian warfare, have spent their lives dealing with. The youth[1] in Iraq have been particularly hit by this crisis: exposed to violence, their education stopped and young men targeted for recruitment by armed groups.


In Qayyarah subdistrict, which was retaken from ISIS in September 2016 most families have now returned. Communities are focused on rebuilding their homes and lives, catching up on two years of lost education and finding jobs to support their families. Basic services such as water and electricity are insufficient, and at times have been non existent and most people don’t have an income, leading lots of young men and boys to join local militia groups to earn some money.


Malak is just one of thousands of young people who have returned to live in Qayyarah. Even before ISIS, life could be tough for the youth in the area: both education and employment opportunities were limited, various non-state armed groups and criminal gangs operated in the area kidnapping, looting and terrorising families, and the economy depended on families being employed in government jobs, including in the security forces.


Now they have returned home there is a sense of hope amongst the youth in Qayyarah. But there is also a sense that they expect the peace to be short lived and are despondent about their futures since they lost two years of their education and jobs are still hard to come by.


Malak now faces an uncertain future, without her mother, whom she clearly misses very much, she continues to play a key role in the family as an older sister to her younger siblings. She has been unable to go back to school but hopes one day she might have the chance.  “If I could wake up and all my dreams had come true we would have a new house, better conditions, more money, and a new life where everything is safe. We came back this summer, all the families came back together from the camp. Our house is destroyed so we are staying in my grandfather’s house. I want to go to school – I wonder if it will be possible. I feel free now, I can go anywhere and move because it’s safe. I am not happy though, I lost my mother and sister and I am very sad.”


To help Iraqis like Malak recover, and ultimately thrive, Oxfam has developed a range of programmatic and policy recommendations for aid agencies and donors. Among other priorities, Oxfam is calling for support to youth as they catch up after missing two years of education; for centers where youth can interact, have fun, and access key services; and for the full involvement of youth in the process of return, reconstruction, and reconciliation. Oxfam’s team recently presented these recommendations to policy-makers from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the United Kingdom Department for International Development, and the foreign ministries of Germany and Belgium. Oxfam’s advocacy for Iraqi youth will continue in the coming month, with a high-level event to be held in Baghdad in July.


[1] The UN defines youth as a person between the ages of 15 to 24.


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