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Iraq: what do Mosul’s children want to make disappear?

If you could make something in your life disappear, what would it be?

That’s the question we asked children fleeing the brutal regime of ISIS in Iraq, as part of the largest ever study on the effect of the conflict in Mosul on children’s mental health.

Magic Bag Game

We asked 65 children who had lived under ISIS, “If you could put into a magic bag anything in your life that you no longer want or that makes you feel sad, scared, or upset, what would it be?”

Over half put in memories of the brutal fighting they fled – things to do with ‘war and weapons’. Many put ‘ISIS’.

Our researchers found children who had fled Mosul were haunted by ‘waking nightmares’ and were mentally scarred by memories extreme violence. And yet a few put in things that serve as a touching reminder that, even in the midst of horrific conflict, children are always children.

‘Unwanted toys’, ‘dogs’ and even ‘scary animals like tigers’. These were some of the things that children who had just fled almost unimaginable horrors said they would like to banish from the world.

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Magic Bag Game – UK

I visited a couple of schools in the UK and spoke to 80 pupils to find out how children here would respond the same questions. Their answers offer a glimpse into the everyday concerns and interests of children living in peace – and the lives denied to children growing up surrounded by death and war.

Top of this list of things going in the bag: bugs and creepy crawlies, with spiders featuring prominently. Next came types of food, with vegetables bearing the brunt. Neither answer was among those given by Iraqi children.

“What would make you happier?”

We also asked the children, “If you could take anything out of this magic bag that would make you feel better or happier what would it be?”

The most common response from children in Iraq was simple: ‘happiness’. As a common answer among children in the UK, it was also universal.

But the next response on the list reveals the terrible cost of this conflict. Over a quarter of the children from Mosul said loved ones who had been lost or killed. By comparison, 6% of the British who said relatives who have passed away.

Alahddin*, 13, told us, “I want to put the sound of the airplane and the airplane and its horrific sound in the magic bag. From the magic bag I want to take happiness, laughter. And the people to be happy”

Sara, 11, from Iraq
Sara*, 11, had a 14-year-old brother who got killed by a sniper just outside the door of their house.

11 year-old Sara’s* brother was killed by a sniper in Mosul. She told us, “I want to put weapons, airplanes, I want to put them in the bag. From the magic bag I want to take… everything. I want toys, I will take everything I like… I want a big red teddy bear from the magic bag.”

Head, heart and stomachs

And I could guess what most British children would take out of the bag to make them happy. It would be phones, toys and football kits, right?

Well, not exactly. 19% of the children I spoke to did want some kind of tech – everything from phones to segways. And there was more unsurprising evidence that our children march on their stomachs, with a quarter saying their favourite foods.

But by far the most popular answer was family. A fact that has even greater meaning by another result of our research in Iraq. 90% of the children from Mosul had lost loved ones in the fighting.

The results of our research reveal the terrible psychological damage caused to children under ISIS. This will hit home with anyone who knows children and their day to day trials and tribulations.

The contrast with the lives of children in the UK is shocking. And yet in some ways it is the common ground that points tragically to the lives children in Iraq should have had.

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