Childhood under assault
Part 7: Raja, Iraq
Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse, exploitation and violence. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Raja’s story, the seventh in our 10-part series.
Warning: descriptions of violence experienced by children.
“I feel the warmth of sun on my face”
Ten-year-old *Raja is tough.
Tougher than the battle fought between Iraqi soldiers and ISIL fighters for control of her home city, Mosul.
Tougher than the deadly explosion that happened right beside her, as she ran from her home in panic. Tougher than its brutal impact on her small body.
Raja is tougher than the multiple surgeries she endured for her badly wounded hand, legs and feet. And she’s tougher than life in a wheelchair, in a devastated city piled with rubble.
She’s tougher, even, than the memory of what happened to her. Now, two years later, she’s finally able to talk about it.
Watch Raja share her experience of war in Mosul, Iraq, in this video below:
Memories of horror
“It was Friday – the day of prayer,” she recalls. “There was fighting and bombs everywhere. I ran from my home, terrified. That’s when a bomb fell beside me.”
In a single violent instant, Raja’s childhood was changed forever. At just ten years old, she became a casualty of war.
The ‘bomb’ was an unidentified explosive of some kind. Iraqi government troops were battling to free Mosul from the control of ISIL fighters. The device could have come from anywhere.
“I remember lying on the ground,” she says. She doesn’t mention the pain. Given the extent of her injuries, she was likely in shock. “I looked at my hand bleeding. There was blood coming from my stomach.”
Neighbours saw Raja lying there and braved the fighting to come running. They rushed her to hospital, where doctors battled to stop the bleeding and save her legs and feet.
But no doctor is qualified to save a child’s spirit. And that spirit was fighting for survival.
After two months, Raja was carried from the hospital, to face life again.
She had lost her hand, and her feet and legs were badly damaged. She wouldn’t have a wheelchair until many months later, when World Vision provided one. She needed to be carried everywhere, even to use the bathroom.
And the damage went far beyond the physical.
Some children emerged from the battle for Mosul and the preceding years of ISIL occupation too terrified even to speak.
And now, two years after the city’s liberation, hundreds of child survivors still can’t leave their homes. What happened ‘out there’ was just too horrible. Their survival instinct screams that inside is safer.
It’s inside their broken houses that World Vision finds children like Raja.
Gently, we invite these young survivors to visit a place that’s not hostile to children – like the world they have known for years. This new place designed for children. A child-friendly space.
A place for children
It took great bravery for Raja to venture out the door again.
“I didn’t want to leave home, so I stayed inside,” she remembers. “Sometimes I would sit in the doorway and feel the warmth of the sun on my face.”
Perhaps that warmth healed her a little, in the quiet after the war. Perhaps it helped keep hope alive.
Yet there were so many reasons not to go. Her body looked different than before. It worked differently. The city was an obstacle course of destruction. And the child-friendly space was an unknown prospect.
Eventually, Raja found the courage. She took the risk.
It was inside the child-friendly space that Raja began reclaiming her life. Pictures of nature’s beauty lined the walls, created by children determined to see beyond a city of rubble.
This small sanctuary is precious for children. Outside, much of the city remains unsafe for play. Urban war zones can be filled with teetering buildings on the verge of collapse and explosives not yet detonated.
But inside, everything was stable, predictable. Staff spoke softly and kindly. They didn’t push Raja to talk or participate before she was ready. She could just watch and listen as other children painted, played, sang songs.
And there was much more. Raja met workers who care deeply for kids, as well as people who specialize in the psychological needs of children who’ve survived hell on earth.
In the months to follow – with professional care, financial help from a local partner organization, and untiring support from her family – her spirit began to mend. Such healing doesn’t come easily. But it does come.
Today, it’s as though the sun that once shone warm on Raja’s face is now radiating from her.
“I love singing,” she says, smiling broadly. “I love drawing pictures and painting. I like drawing mountains and rivers…because I want to go to those places.”
Miraculously, hope and horror can co-exist in the same child. With the right care, support and security, hope grows slowly stronger. Gradually, the horror drains away.
Peace and security
At ten, Raja stands at the threshold of adolescence and teen years. There’s so much to be considered. Like any Canadian girl, she’ll contend with the regular stuff of learning, growing, creating a life.
And although her city is in ruins, Raja’s building a future in her head. It’s one that takes those past horrors and weaves them into something wonderful. Something to help others.
“I’d like to be a doctor,” she says. “I want to be like the doctor who helped me, so I can help others too.” For many Iraqi children, a doctor is the equivalent of a superhero: someone who saved your life.
Raja won’t be able to work in that same hospital any time soon. It was destroyed by bombs shortly after she was discharged. There’s still such a long way to go.
Joy in the ruins
While Raja was sharing her story, her mother sat nearby, moving through every emotion her daughter shared.
She cried as Raja talked of the day she was injured and what she has gone through while working toward recovery. And when Raja sang, her mother’s face was filled with the light of love and pride.
Is Raja herself proud of all she has achieved? It’s not a term she uses. The determined adolescent has a philosophy that might be hard to understand. But perhaps it’s been part of her spirit’s survival.
“These things that happened to me…they happen sometimes,” Raja reflects, with a resignation that doesn’t belong in the childhood of any ten-year-old girl.
“I am just glad to be alive.”
Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.
*Name changed to protect her identity.
All photos by Brett Tarver