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

For over two years, Islamic State controlled the Iraqi city of Mosul, including its schools. Now that the U.S.-led coalition has pushed the Islamists out, the city's teachers face a dilemma: How do you reshape the minds of children who were taught to fight and kill?

On a morning in late March, 20 children are standing between bombed houses and burned-out cars in front of an elementary school on a street in eastern Mosul. When you ask them what they learned inside, they talk about killing. Their teacher was Islamic State (IS), which had a stronghold here. "Daesh, Daesh," the children shout, using the Arabic pejorative for IS, with strong, excited voices, as if the sound concealed an unbelievable secret.

The children are between the ages of 6 and 13. Their backpacks are too large for their bodies, they wear sandals and their T-shirts have holes. Some ate eggs that morning, others didn't. As the children wait for the gate to open, they call out and laugh. Their happiness is real, but if you look through it, you can see the war in their small, hardened faces.

IS conquered Mosul in June 2014. When it tried to create a state, it didn't stop at acquiring land, people, a doctrine and a flag. It also pushed into every crevice of social life -- it controlled the economy, administered justice and created lesson plans that fit its views. The goal of IS was to create a worldview, which also led it to take over Mosul's schools.

Iraqi army troops freed eastern Mosul a few short weeks ago. Since then, around 20,000 children have returned to school. Despite the danger of IS drone attacks and suicide bombers coming over the Tigris River from the contested western part of the city, 70 of the 400 schools in the east have reopened. Things are meant to be like they were before in their classrooms. But is that possible? What did the students here experience under IS?

Abdel, 10, says: "In our math book there was a truck filled with weapons and a man from IS stood on it"

Basha, 13, says: "We sat around a lot and didn't do anything. Sometimes someone asked us who is better, the Iraqi army or IS? And we screamed loudly, 'IS'."

Amir, 9, says: "The men made the animals disappear from our biology books. There were no more lions, only IS."

Hassan, 12, says: "They threw a child from a high-rise. And they beat my uncle with a broken bottle until his stomach split open."

Qaisar, 13, says: "They taught us how to decapitate a person. We practiced on a doll. The doll was a bit larger than me, in military clothes."

A Neighborhood Ruled by Fear

It is 8 a.m., the teacher whistles, the children run into the Ben Marwan School, a yellow, low-rise building whose facade is pockmarked by bullet holes. The window above the entry gate is splintered, a mortar went through the roof in the rear, burst-apart desks are stacked in the classrooms.

If one were to look down on the Ben Marwan School from above, one would see the scale of the devastation the U.S.-led coalition's air raids wrought on the streets around it at the start of the year. Houses that were known as IS control centers are burned out. Just a few months ago, IS followers decapitated four people in front of the school, their heads rolling before the chidren's very eyes. Now veiled women carry water from a tap to their houses, a boy sells sugar and others play soccer in a wasteland that might still be mined. The people moving around here walk carefully and are full of suspicion. Nobody knows what their neighbor is thinking, how many IS followers are hidden unrecognized in the houses. The war in eastern Mosul may have grown silent, but it is ongoing.

For 18 months, Islamic State tried to shape the thoughts of the children in the Ben Marwan School. Its system called for a five-year elementary school education followed by four years of middle school. IS also had an Education Ministry: The so-called Diwan al-Taalim decided what Mosul's tens of thousands of teachers had to teach their students. In addition to indoctrinating them in the classroom, IS brought children into the mosques and assembled them on the streets to show them decapitation videos.

"My school was a seed grain from which a megalomaniacal state was meant to grow," says the school's principal. Shaker Ahmad, 52, is a portly man with a white beard and rings under his eyes who likes to counteract the chaos with poetic bits of wisdom. Ahmad fought in the Iran-Iraq War and has been working as a teacher for over 25 years. He sits at his desk on the southeastern corner of the city. His four teachers are sitting engrossed around him on new sofas. "We burned the old ones at home to have heat in the winter," says Ahmad. "We also burned our shoes and books."

How are they doing now, after IS?

"Under IS we had around 100 students here," the principal says. "Most of them stayed at home." Now all of them are coming to school all at once. Ahmad has registered 800 children. He divides them into shifts -- most of them can only come two or three times per week. UNICEF sent him notebooks and materials, "Alhamdulillah ("praise be to God"), we are lucky, but it is not enough," he says.

"For two years now, we haven't been getting our salaries from Baghdad," says one teacher. The Iraqi government stopped its payments to public employees in the occupied areas because they assumed the money would end up going to IS. "We worked under IS because we were afraid. Now we're working because we have hope for the future," says another.

It's been almost three months since Shaker Ahmad reopened his school. When asked what they did after IS was officially driven out, the principal says, "We sang songs," for the first time in a long time.

"We can smoke again, listen to music, use the telephone," he says as the nearby war thunders in the background. On this particular day, dozens of people will die when an IS mortar strikes next to the market in the city center and leaves a deep hole in the asphalt. In the west of the city, which is still held by IS followers, thousands of inhabitants are being used as human shields.

'We Are Changing the Lesson Plans'

Shaker Ahmad expected Islamic State's men to arrive after they overran Mosul in summer of 2014. He sat at home on the edge of the city because it was a school vacation. They ultimately came, three of them.

An IS follower from Egypt and another from Jordan introduced themselves. They claimed to be with the "IS Education Ministry," supposedly headquartered in Raqqa, the terrorists' Syrian stronghold. They were accompanied by the future supervisor for the 30 schools in Ahmad's district in Mosul. The IS group let the principal know that they counted on his working with them. His teachers were to return to school.

After IS made its round, their supervisor arrived in the Ben Marwan School. He seemed friendly. "You can continue under us as you had before," they say Abu Zainab, as they called him, told them. In the city, IS gave away bread and gasoline to the poor, and they gave children watches in the mosques. Nobody was suspicious at first. It took two or three months before the tone changed.

One day, Abu Zainab came to the school with a sword. He had all the teachers sit on chairs and placed the sword in the center. He sat cross-legged on the stool and began his talk with verses from the Koran. He spoke about the role of IS for Islam and its responsibility to stand up against the West.

He said the teachers now had a special importance in the "caliphate." "We are changing the lesson plans and the books," he allegedly said. He claimed the old books were full of blasphemy and that there would be further training for the teachers. "Those who resist will die."

IS called on the teachers to burn the old books. They were books filled with poetry and songs, with stories about the wonders of Iraq, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving works of classical literature. They threw it all into the fire.

His people had apparently had thin new booklets printed in a paper factory in Mosul, Ahmad says. Other reports from Mosul claim that IS had given CDs to the students, so that they could print out the contents at their own cost.

IS changed the geography in the books. It removed the border between Syria and Iraq, added together the population numbers to give the impression of a great empire. They depicted Kurds and Shiites as groups that opposed Islam and considered them to be "kafir" -- non-believers who were to be killed.

Islamic State replaced history books with biographies of its leading figures. "We received biographies of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the Prophet Mohammed," the principal remembers. Overall there was lots of religious literature that was partly based on writings from the 13th century. Even some of the teachers couldn't understand the Koran verses that all were supposed to memorize by heart. Terrified as they were, they followed the order.

The apples and pears used to teach addition and subtraction disappeared from the math textbooks and were replaced with tanks and grenades. The plus symbol was replaced with the letter "z" because it too closely resembled a Christian cross.

The students needed to calculate how many bombs an IS factory could produce in a certain amount of time. In English, one assignment was: "How do I ask someone if they can clean my weapon?" Art and music were abolished by IS because they weren't useful for jihad. On top of the religious teachings, the children fought in military training.

During class, the teachers needed to wear their pants so that their ankles were uncovered, then they fastened rubber bands over their socks. Female teachers were required to veil themselves completely. And the rules also specified: No cosmetics, no perfume, no mobile phones, no cigarettes. Boys and girls were separated; male and female teachers couldn't meet under any circumstance.

"They accused my predecessor of having sat next to a woman in the school," the principal says quietly. "IS killed him. And only then did I get promoted." Any father who accidentally brought a girl to a boy's school was killed. IS created a reign of terror and a minefield for the teachers.

"We needed to think like them every step we took," says the principal. "We got better at it, but it also made us crazy." To save at least a few old books, one teacher hid them in his house next to the fireplace. If an IS member was to see it, he would have claimed that the books were there for heating.

IS merged several schools in Mosul because hundreds of parents pulled their children out and no longer allowed them to attend. But home schooling was "haram," or banned. The rules in the Ben Marwan School became increasingly absurd. "Sometimes we would have liked to have laughed," says one teacher. "But they would have killed us immediately."

'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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