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'We have no choice': A day in the life of Mosul's young scrap-metal merchants

Some of Mosul’s poorest children sell pieces of metal scavenged from the ruins of the war-ravaged Old City
Children as young as seven collect and sell scrap metal in Mosul (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)
By Tom Westcott in Mosul, Iraq

Bright splashes of colour pop against the rain-sodden ruins of Mosul's Old City, as the city's youngest scrap-metal merchants, dressed in plastic raincoats and hooded tops, weave in and out of the destruction.

"There are 25 of us working here," says Hamoudi, nine, squatting on the ground to pull apart a household electronic device. "We get 5,000 Iraqi dinars ($4) per 100kg of scrap we collect."

In the ruined landscape beside the River Tigris, a graveyard for the many hundreds killed by relentless air strikes in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group in 2017, the boys work with agility and good spirits.

Aged seven to 14, the boys - most of whom only gave Middle East Eye their first names - talk animatedly about the dangers of mines and improvised explosive devices, using exaggerated hand gestures while imitating the sounds of explosions.

"My brother died last week from a mine," says Mohammed, a diminutive 12 year old. "It’s a dangerous job," he says, flatly.

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Mosul's Old City was a bastion of IS militants, who ruled the city for three years (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)

The boys say they work for a man in his thirties. Approached by Middle East Eye, he wrapped a scarf around his face to avoid identification and moved away.

The youngsters say they are particularly scared of abandoned IS suicide belts they find in the rubble, but they also play with the horrible remnants of war.

Finding a camouflage IS army waistcoat with several pockets for holding AK47 magazines, Mohamed tries it on, absurdly outsized, then casts it aside and runs off laughing.

"There are bodies everywhere, in the houses," says Ahmed, 10. "Look, here’s a dead IS."

Inside Mosul: Where the dead are swept away as looters scour the ruins
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Stretched out across the rubble, the corpse is identifiable as that of an IS fighter by his military fatigues, now coated in turquoise mildew. The boys proudly point out tunnel entrances and exits, which IS fighters relied on to move around the Old City in the final stages of the war.

"We work here because we have no money and no other choice," says Omar, 14, softly, while the younger boys run around, laughing and throwing unwanted items aside.

Behind them, bulldozers steadily flatten the riverside remains of Mosul's Old City, the historic centre which was the last bastion of IS militants who ruled the city for three years.

Life has returned to much of Mosul a year and a half later and, across the city, reconstruction efforts are underway, including on the fringes of the Old City. But locals say this former residential stretch on the banks of the river, destroyed by air strikes, will have to be flattened and rebuilt from scratch.

Scrapyard overshadows historic mosque

Nearby, the ruins of the famous al-Nuri Mosque and its adjacent Hadba ("hunchback") minaret are obscured from the main road by a scrapyard. The mosque is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2014 and the minaret was blown up as Iraqi forces were closing in on the city.

Already piled high with metal debris - railings, crumpled corrugated iron, empty oil barrels - children and young people make fresh deliveries of salvaged scrap metal throughout the day.

"No photos, no photos," shouts a man called Omar, who says he runs the scrapyard, climbing out of his Toyota pick-up truck and striding towards the entrance.

"I’ve been tasked with clearing the rubble of Mosul. I have a government contract," he says. "It’s not a good business and I’m only making a little money."

Omar, who is from Baghdad, says he has no obligation to pay the poverty-stricken metal scavengers who fill the scrapyard, but he says he does so out of pity because they have nothing.

A scrapyard obscures a view of the ruins of the famous al-Nuri Mosque and its adjacent Hadba minaret (Tom Westcott/MEE)
A scrapyard obscures the ruins of the famous al-Nuri Mosque and its adjacent minaret (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)

Running another nearby scrapyard, Mohammed, from Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, says the al-Nuri mosque scrapyard is actually his, on land rented from an owner who formerly ran a garage there.

"We have 10 sites in Mosul," Mohammed says. "I was collecting scrap metal in Ramadi before and we moved here a year ago. There’s a factory in Erbil I take all the scrap to and they recycle it."

Mohammed, who says his operation is a private enterprise, gets paid 65,000 Iraqi dinars ($55) per tonne and says business is going well.

An employee at one of Mohammed’s 10 scrapyards in the city estimates it will take at least five years to fully clear Mosul.

In the scrapyards, wooden carts loaded with metal are weighed, their contents thrown into huge piles. Each cart is then weighed again, this time empty, in order to calculate the weight of each delivery.

"These kids are poor and they lost their families so I’m helping them by buying the scrap metal they collect," says Mohammed. Around 80 children, many of them orphans, bring salvaged metal just to this one scrapyard, according to one employee.

We all had to leave school to go to work. Necessity pushes us to do this. We have no choice

- Motaz, 11

Ferhal, 14, says they can collect 100-120kg of scrap metal each per day at most, making around 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8). He is one of four boys working on the fringes of the Old City, on the steep ruins of a torn-apart building that is now crowned by an idle excavator.

"There’s no other choice for us, no other work," says Hussein, 20. "Everybody here lost something, lost someone. My mother died. I‘m the only one left in my family able to work."

Motaz, 11, who shyly tries to hide his cigarette and toothless grin in photos, says his father was killed in the war, leaving him as the sole family breadwinner.

"We all had to leave school to go to work. Necessity pushes us to do this. We have no choice," he says, recklessly throwing scraps from the summit of the ruined building down to the road, where bedraggled horses tethered to wooden carts stand waiting.

"We don’t want to go back to school anyway. Why would we?" he adds.

These boys work for themselves, earning double the daily wages of the group of mostly younger children down by the river.

"We take any kind of small scrap metal, but we don’t take that stuff," says Hussein, gesturing to where surrounding wasteland is lined with the tangled coils of rebar - lengths of reinforced metal used in construction.

"That metal’s too difficult because it’s all embedded in masonry, so we leave it."

Dangerous work

The rebar does not go to waste, however.

On a destroyed West Mosul street, Najum Hassan employs four young men, including one of his own sons, to wrench coils of rebar from ruined buildings.

"There’s not much work in Mosul now, very few jobs, and if we don’t take this, it just stays here," he says.

"We’re mainly working with rebar. We get 170,000 Iraqi dinars ($143) per ton. It gets straightened out by machine at a workshop here in Mosul and then we bring it back and sell it to people rebuilding their homes and buildings for 400,000 Iraqi dinars ($336) per tonne. It will all be reused."

Children collect scraps from destroyed buildings in Mosul's Old City (Tom Westcott/MEE)
Children collect scraps from destroyed buildings in Mosul (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)

Working in the scrap metal trade since 1975, Hassan said he never anticipated salvaging rebar from thousands of destroyed homes in Mosul.

He pays his employees, the youngest of whom is 13 years old, 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8) per day. The daily wage used to be 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($21), but the challenging winter weather has slowed the work and dropped the daily rate, he says.

"There’s a lot of work but the rain has delayed us," Hassan says. "We do more in spring and summer because it’s very hard to do this job when it’s raining - but we’re still working now."

One of his employees, Yazan, 16, says salvage operations started six months after the liberation of Mosul, when it became clear no one was coming to help.

"We started because there was no support from the government or the local council," he said.

"Everyone in Mosul is doing everything alone, including rebuilding. It’s the local people who are working here, not organisations. We’ve had very little help or support from anyone, local or international."

The current situation in West Mosul, where difficult family circumstances have forced children to scavenge for scrap metal in dangerous ruins and where residents self-fund clearance and rebuilding operations, reflects widespread local claims that the Iraqi government is failing to adequately support the rebuilding of the city.

Mosul scrapyard
Difficult family circumstances in West Mosul have forced children to scavenge for scrap metal (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)

Even beyond the Old City, Mosul’s ruins can be lethal.

Yazan said one of his cousins recently lost an eye after a piece of rebar recoiled and hit him in the face, which the 16-year-old said is a common injury among those salvaging rebar.

Buildings across the city also remain littered with IEDs and other unexploded ordnance.

Still, the work goes on.

"It’s dangerous work," Hassan says. "If we find a bomb, which we often do, we call the police and they come and arrange for removal or detonation."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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