Down to the river for youths from embattled Mosul

KHAZIR, Iraq: With bare tree branches as diving boards, they take off and plunge into Iraq’s Khazir River, a rare moment of respite for boys forced from their homes in the battleground city of Mosul.
The river which flows into the mighty Tigris has been providing a welcome escape for dozens of youths displaced by fighting to oust IS group fighters from Mosul, ever since the boys made a breach in the fence at their Wazir camp.
They make their way down to the river — itself the historic site of a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia — along a dusty path.
“We come to freshen up a bit now that it’s Ramadhan and so hot!” said Hamad Shihab Hamad, 19, emerging from the water.
This year’s Ramadhan, which started in late May, comes at a time when the mercury can soar to 45 degrees Celsius in the Mosul area.
“People have a good time with their friends until late afternoon and then go back to the camp,” said Hamad. “We have no work and nothing to do… we’re at the camp all day.”
The boys clap and cheer every time one of them prepares to jump.
In the absence of a lifeguard, some children, especially younger ones, have taken to wearing rubber rings on their arms or makeshift floats.
AFP journalists saw a four-year-old struggle and have to be rescued.
Khazir camp, southwest of Mosul, has become home to more than 32,000 people displaced by the battle launched in October by Iraqi forces to expel IS from Iraq’s second city.
Iraqi security forces are more than seven months into a massive operation to retake Mosul from IS, which overran the city and swathes of other territory three years ago.
Now, IS’s grip on Mosul has been reduced to the Old City and several nearby areas.
Khazir is one of the only camps for the displaced that does have electricity — but only for the average fours a day that the generators operate, making life almost unbearable especially those observing the Ramadhan fast.
“It’s hot in the tent and the generator doesn’t always work… There’s nothing much to do in the camp, so I come here for a swim and for a bit of fun with my brothers and cousins,” said 13-year-old Ibrahim Hassan Ibrahim.
“Swimming is the only fun we have,” said Saleh, 38, who brought along his five children.
Up until a few weeks ago, leaving the camp which is secured by the Kurdish authorities was not allowed.
Security forces quickly repaired a previous breach in the perimeter fence, residents say.
But with the rise in temperatures, the rules have apparently been relaxed.
“Since the start of Ramadhan, people have been leaving their tents to come swimming in the cool waters of the river,” said 16-year-old Nizar.