Life After Islamic State 'They Taught Us How To Decapitate a Person'

By (Text) and Andy Spyra (Photos) in Mosul, Iraq

Part 2: 'What Becomes of This Country Is Up to Us Teachers'

In the entrance hall of the school, right next to the principal's room, figures of children are drawn on the wall. One child is bent over a book and reading. Two others are holding hands, under the word "welcome," a simple gesture, full of warmth.

When IS took over Ben Marwan School, it painted over the children's faces with dark paint. It was considered "haram" to depict faces. The IS members also went to the butcher who sold meat in front of the school and who advertised himself with a poster of a cow. They spray painted over the cow and told the man that only God can create living creatures.

Now this period is over and the principal says: "What becomes of this country is up to us teachers." But he hasn't yet figured out how to tackle this project. What he sees concerns him. "When the children play during the break, they play police and IS. One of them shoots at the other ones." Shaker Ahmad would prefer to simply forget the past.

He has no plan for processing the events, no understanding of trauma, but he does have a heart, open eyes and a piece of wisdom: "Small children are like bread dough," he says. "You can shape them. They learn quickly, but they forget too."

They are sentences that everybody here believes.

Ben Warman School is rectangular, and in its right wing a door to one of the classrooms is open, with about 50 first-grade students crowded into the desks. The air in the room is stuffy. Muhammad Assil, who once studied theater at the university in Mosul, is teaching Arabic this morning. He has his pupils write out new words -- chick, apple, pear -- and then checks them.

Assil is 29 years old. He has soft brown eyes, three daughters, a wife and wears a jacket. Normally his monthly wage is the equivalent of 160 euros. "Because the government doesn't pay my salary, I still work at my kiosk in the evenings."

He says the period under IS control was the toughest of his life. "Life had become so expensive, that I wanted to teach to feed my family. IS didn't pay though," he says. But staying at home was too dangerous. Assil was born in Mosul, and was tortured twice. One time by the Iraqi secret service, after the fall of Saddam, when they supposedly confused him with a murderer. And once by IS, because he had taken selfies as he swam in a river half-naked. Assil doesn't know a life without violence.

"We never spoke to the children about IS," he says. The main reason, he says, was that the parents of most of the children were themselves IS followers. "We could never be certain what they said at home. And now we still need to be careful, because IS has only been defeated militarily."

Assil's colleague Ekhlas Hamdi, the only woman working at the school, still wears a full veil. Assil makes jokes about her and says, "You look like you're from IS."

Then Hamdi answers, "The air here is dusty." Later she says: "I'm afraid. But it is OK, the children are used to the veil." Her voice trembles when she speaks, her look so intense and injured that one seems to see her past suffering in them.

Assil says he knows one student who wets his bed. The parents, he says, had approached him and asked him to speak to their son. "I told him that he should use a toilet," says Assil, "and that a person doesn't do that."

Then he looked at the floor for a long time, as if he had also been complicit in the legacy of IS. But he fled from the fighting in Mosul himself, running through the hail of bullets with his wife and two daughters. They lost a third and didn't track the daughter down again until that evening.

"I try to be a role model for the children," he says. "We don't talk about the past, but I read them stories they need for their lives." For example, the story of the hunter and the bird. It goes likes this: A hunter follows a bird through a forest. The bird hides and makes jokes about the hunter. The hunter only notices the bird because it is cursing so loudly and ultimately shoots it.

It is a brutal story to read. But what is its moral? "If you say mean things, you are punished," Assil says, beaming. The violence in the story doesn't bother him. He believes that caring makes a difference, content less so.

In the teacher's room, they have hung a pyramid on the wall made up of five components. On the bottom, it says, "basic needs," then "security," and "social life," then "personal needs" and then all the way up top, "self-realization." "All in all that leads to a good life," says Assil. But he doesn't seem to be totally sure if the pyramid is more of a taunt or an incentive in Mosul at the moment. Assil is nevertheless optimistic, and quotes the same wisdom as all the others in the school do, independently of one another: "Children are like bread dough. You can shape them. They learn quickly but also forget again."

Training Children to Kill

Is that true, Qaisar? Qaisar al-Kurdi comes out of a classroom, a cheerful boy who seems younger than his 13 years. This morning he was the one who most energetically talked about the time under IS. In the teacher's room, he sits shyly on the sofa, the teachers only hesitantly allow him to be interviewed. Qaisar likes Real Madrid and wants to become a doctor, for hearts. Does he want to talk about what happened here?

The boy closes the curtains so that the other children can't look in. "IS came every day in order to teach us how to fight," he says. "They explained nothing to us, we just had to follow orders." Slowly, slowly, his voice becomes more eager. Soon he jumps up and points to where they hid behind car tires or walls built with sandbags during their combat training.

Qaisar moves in the empty room like a dancer, punches at an invisible face on the floor, wrestles the air, punches, shows how they hung a belt around him with plastic bombs in it.

"This is how I had to walk," he says, and strolls around the room with the heavy imaginary belt like an astronaut on the search for solid ground, his thumbs click through the air, looking for the trigger of the detonator.

IS gave them lifesize plastic bodies that were fully dressed. They looked like real human beings and were larger than Qaisar. The boy says he had to cut the head off. Soon he got the hang of using the knife and he says that IS was satisfied with his work each time.

Qaisar's facial expression is hard to read -- a mixture of fascination, awe and pure fear.

After the lesson, Qaisar's father offers tea in a room, covered in mattresses, at the end of the street.

"I almost lost my child to IS," says Mohammed al-Kurdi, a devout Muslim dressed in black who doesn't shake hands with women. "In the beginning, I let Qaisar go to school, because I wanted him to learn how to read. Only after a while did we notice that they were trying to brainwash him."

After a few months, he says, Qaisar started going to the mosque. There, they tried to convince him to join IS. "Can I do that without asking my parents?" he says Qaisar asked. An IS follower apparently said "yes." And when Qaisar talked to his father anyways, it led his dad into a potentially deadly conflict. The IS follower came to him several times and tried to take his son with him. "I ultimately did things like them," says the father. "I brainwashed him in the other direction. Taught him the right Islam, forgiveness, trust, until he wanted to stay at home." It's unclear how he managed that.

And he too says the sentences that everybody here believes. Sentences that unburden and are meant to bring hope: "Children are like bread dough. They learn quickly, but they also forget again."

When the children walk back to the Ben Marwan School in the afternoon, the principal comes to the gate. "Turn around," he calls to them. In western Mosul, almost 200 people have died in a bombing attack by the U.S.-led coalition. The government has called for a period of official state mourning.

The principal takes the keys and closes the gate for three days.

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