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Mosul’s years-long nightmare seemingly ended last week: On July 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed the full liberation the city. Despite the announcement, sporadic fighting and coalition strikes continued into the next day, as Islamic State fighters were still hiding in pockets around the city they had controlled since 2014.

On July 13, US presidential envoy Brett McGurk told a Coalition meeting in Washington that military experts consider the Mosul campaign “one of the most difficult military operations since World War II.”

A man brings a young girl through a rubble strewn street as they flee fighting in Mosul, Iraq on June 24, 2017. Image © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar

The danger to Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga during the nine-month offensive came not only from snipers and waves of suicide attackers, but also booby-traps, mostly mines laid throughout the city by fleeing Islamic State militants.

Compounding the complexities of urban warfare, Islamic State trapped thousands of people inside the city, using them as human shields.

Mosul’s liberation came at a high cost: 80 percent of the city, which traces its history back to 401 BC, lies in ruins.

Smoke rises from fighting over the Old City of Mosul, Iraq on June 23, 2017, illuminated by a flare dropped from the sky. Image: © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar

The fighting displaced 930,416 people, including some 512,000 children, according to statistics from UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund.

Mosul’s returning residents now have to contend with the hidden threat of landmines and other ad-hoc explosive devices Islamic State left for them.

Nevertheless, the agency said Moslawis are eager to leave camps set up for internally displaced people, and return to what is left of their homes.

An UNICEF spokesperson, Sharon Behn Nogueira, told Grasswire that 223,925 people have already returned to Mosul.

The majority of the people – 157,500, including 86,500 children – have returned to settle in the city’s east. Another 66,584 people, 36,500 of whom are children, are going to West Mosul.

“In the past three days, UNICEF and its partners have seen an increase in the number of extremely vulnerable unaccompanied children arriving at medical facilities and reception areas. Some babies brought in have been found alone in the debris,” UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Iraq Hamida Ramadhani, said in a statement on July 14.

Young children flee fighting in Mosul, Iraq on June 23, 2017. Image: © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar

Mosul’s returning children face landmines and trauma

The city which tens of thousands of children are returning to still needs to be demined.

Nina Seecharan, Iraq director for the British charity Mines Advisory Group, said in a statement on July 14 that the organization has not seen landmines used on this scale in 20 years.

“This is a humanitarian landmine emergency. The scale of contamination from landmines and booby traps will hinder early recovery and stabilisation efforts and slow access to the people most in need.”

MAG Iraq country director Nina Seecharan

The MAG said recently that ten people died and five were injured by improvised landmines and booby traps they found after returning home to a village close to Mosul.

On Thursday, two members of the counter-ISIS Coalition, France and Germany, announced the initiation of mine clearance measures for Mosul.

However, Stanley Brown, director of the US State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, told The Washington Post that it may take years, or even decades, to fully clear Mosul of mines and other booby-traps.

Many of the children who are now retuning to Mosul have been exposed to horrific levels of violence during their short lives. Behn Nogueira said UNICEF and its partner agencies are providing psychological first aid, and psychosocial care for those most in need.

UNICEF is also providing emergency assistance packages to people returning to the area, including hygiene items, water and food rations.

In addition, the organization is working to re-open schools. Education in general, and schools in particular, has been shown to reintroduce normalcy and stability in post-conflict areas, and studies suggest it helps children recover faster after war, both physically and mentally.

To date, 336 schools have reopened in east Mosul and 136 in parts of west Mosul, according to UNICEF.

“Even though the fighting has ended, the rebuilding of children’s lives has only just begun. They will need physical and psychological care, and the swift restoration of all basic services including education and safe drinking water,” Behn Nogueira said.

Staff from UNHCR’s partner organisation Mercy Hands for Humanitarian Aid carry out household assessments in Al Khadra neighbourhood, eastern Mosul on July 4, 2017. Image: © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

Staff from UNHCR’s partner organisation Mercy Hands for Humanitarian Aid have been carrying out household assessments in Al Khadra neighbourhood, eastern Mosul, to record the number of displaced people who have returned.

In the neighbourhood, the majority of families have returned and have begun work to repair and rebuild, Mercy Hands said.

Much of western Mosul has been destroyed, but damage to the eastern part of the city was not as severe and families there are beginning to rebuild their lives.

The population has greatly increased as displaced families from western Mosul have moved in with relatives or friends rather than to camps.

Andreas Needham, Communications and Public Information Officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Iraq, told Grasswire that some of the most vulnerable families would get one-off cash and shelter assistance.

The organization plans to supply people who manage to return to Mosul with Emergency Shelter Kits (ESKs) and Sealing-Off Kits (SOKs), which will allow them to seal off damaged walls, doors and windows to make their homes habitable until more substantial repairs can be done.

“However, it is likely that many thousands of people may have to remain in displacement for months to come,” Needham noted. “Civilians must not be forced to return to unsafe areas. Any returns should be voluntary, non-discriminatory, safe and sustainable.”

Young Iraqi boys, recently returned to eastern Mosul, walk among the rubble of a city scarred by fierce fighting on July 4, 2017. Image: © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

The International Organization for Migration said on July 14 that it identified an additional 380,000 internally displaced persons – or more than 63,000 families – in East Mosul. As of July 13, a total of 174,674 families have been displaced from the entire city, IOM said.

UNHCR says it intends to continue providing support to families in the 13 camps set up in response to the Mosul crisis. The assistance includes legal aid with documents that many have lost in the conflict. Lack of paperwork could prevent them from getting access to basic services or even travelling.

A young boy carries a cooler down a main road in Hamam al-Alil camp, Iraq, on June 27, 2017. A quarter of all families in the camp are single-parent and headed by war widows. Image: © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar

McGurk said on July 13 that the counter-ISIS Coalition has already identified more than 100 sites for immediate stabilization projects in Mosul. During the Coalition meeting last week, Washington announced it would pledge an extra $119 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq.

Nevertheless, UNHCR is still under-funded to the tune of $126 million to complete its work in 2017. And as of July 3, the UNHCR had received just 21 percent of the $578 million it needs this year to respond to the the situation in Iraq.

Children flee fighting in Mosul, Iraq on June 24, 2017. Image: © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar

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