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The New Arab

Back to school in post-apocalyptic Fallujah

Schools in Fallujah are welcoming their first students since the city's liberation from IS [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 December, 2016

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Homes, schools, hospitals and businesses were flattened as Iraqi forces fought to liberate Fallujah from IS. Now life is getting back to normal, at least for schoolchildren, as residents return.

After recapturing Fallujah from the Islamic State group in June, Iraqi officials said the city had been "laid to waste".

After a month of fighting, militants had been chased out, but at a devastating cost.

Many homes and shops were looted and burned by Shia militias operating with the federal police.

And the city's basic infrastructure was almost completely destroyed with 400 educational facilities, 238 health centres, 44 residential compounds, 7,000 homes and 6,000 shops heavily damaged in the fighting.

Six months ago, 85,000 people fled the city as bombs fell on their houses, with many escaping earlier.

Today, the walls of Fallujah still remain scarred with bullet holes, but thousands of residents have returned to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Small shops are opening, mortar holes filled and - helped by Unicef and a donation from the Japanese government - schools are reopening to students.

With no heat in the classrooms and children are wearing hats, gloves and coats as they sit at their wooden desks, it is a modest start, but for children like Hamed, who lost his father and his own leg in a mortar attack in August 2015, it is the beginning of a return to normality after years of conflict.

Students are nervous about their future. They are scared of bombs, scared they might have to leave again, that the war will return.

As he talks about his wish to be an art teacher, an explosion goes off nearby - teams of de-miners are still clearing the city of the bombs left behind.

During a visit to five schools in the city, there were four controlled detonations, a reminder of the conflict that these families ran away from.

"Half of my friends and half of my neighbours have come back," said Mohamed, eight, who wears a brown coat with the hood over his head.

The classrooms are packed with children, even though they are still waiting for textbooks, and there is nothing on the walls, no coloured pencils and few notebooks. Nearby, another school has been rebuilt with just $4,000, allowing 500 children to return to class.

Teacher Sahera Abass says new families are arriving every week. She left the city in January 2014 when IS swept in, and returned a month ago.

"I came back because this is my school, this is my job, this is my home. I wanted to come," she said.

"Students are nervous about their future," Abass added. "They are scared of bombs, scared they might have to leave again, that the war will return."

School offers them a respite, she adds. "The families have little, all the houses are damaged, they have no electricity, no water," she said.

One of the city's bigger secondary schools had been hit with a large bomb, flattening part of it. Luckily it was empty at the time.

Today, it is full of teenage girls in uniforms, including Noor. She fled Fallujah with her family and lived in three different cities in the past two years before returning home.

"I want to complete my education because it's my dream to be a doctor or a dentist and work in Baghdad," she said.

"Without schools there are no dreams for the future."

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