AWSAJA, Iraq – Their smiles and eyes wide with anticipation say it all — for the first time in two years, Iraqi children in a village south of Mosul that was freed from the Islamic State group are back in school.
Awsaja, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) from the IS-held city and the ferocious battles underway there between Iraqi forces and IS militants, was reclaimed by the Iraqi military just a few months ago.
The village of about 3,000 people had been under Islamic Stage control for two years.
Its 700 children have already all registered to attend school. But resources are limited and there are only three teachers on staff.
The struggle ahead will be a long and hard one, the assistant principle said, but the school's primary goal is to help erase two years of damage inflicted by the Islamic State group.
"We wanted to open this school to let the students study again and to try to fix the brainwashing of Daesh and start anew so they don't lose another year like the ones they lost before," said Natheer Nimr Mohammed, referring to IS by the group's Arabic acronym.
"The only way to do that is through school, God willing," he added.
While under IS control, the school was taken over by the militants and because of the curriculum they chose to teach, all parents removed their children from the school.
For 10-year-old Sager Saddam, that was a relief. He remembers IS militants hoisting their black banner over the school.
"Daesh brought us books that were bad. We couldn't even understand what it was saying and we had to stop. In this school, they put up a bad flag and we were scared that airstrikes could hit us because of it," he continued.
So for two years, he didn't leave his house.
"We were scared," he said.
Awsaja lies close to Qayara, a town that is home to an Iraqi air base and a large oil field that has been burning since June. And until three days ago, an oil well in Awsaja was burning covering the village in an oil cloud.
Oxfam has supplied clean water and materials to the children to help them understand the importance of hygiene — and the timing was just right, said Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, who visited the school Tuesday.
"So actually, it is turning out that the hygiene training along with the basic provision of goods that we are providing, soap and water and shampoos and so forth, are actually helping to be people remove the residue from the oil deposits that are coming down on them from the fires nearby," he said.
As he washed his hands, Sager, the 10-year-old, said he thought he was going to die from the oil smoke.
"My dad asked me, 'What is up with you today, you look happy'," he said.
"I told him: 'Dad, school is finally back!'"