Iraq: Paintings of people I met in Mosul

MSF psychologist Diane Hanna turned to art to tell the story of women and children displaced by conflict

IRAQ 2018 © Dianne Hanna

Australian psychologist Diane Hanna recently returned from her first assignment with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Mosul, Iraq, where she provided mental health care to people displaced by conflict in the city.

Here, Diane shares her impressions the powerful artwork she created to help tell the stories of the women and children she met in Mosul.

Fleeing Mosul

It is impossible to imagine fleeing from your city with buildings burning behind you, gunfire all around you, running with your baby, and the few items you managed to grab.

The desperation and hopelessness are depicted in this painting as the sun (or moon) which appears to be the only witness to the suffering, in a culture where public emotional expression is not the norm.


No health without mental health

Fleeing Mosul
"Fleeing Mosul" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Alone in the dark

On our way from Qayyarah town to the Jeda’ah camps each morning, I would see children wandering around the camp, dusty, disheveled, simply looking for something to do.

This image depicts the sense of loneliness and helplessness that I imagined them experiencing after dark.

"Alone in the dark" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Come back to me

As I finished this piece, my friend’s little girl commented, "Di, you forgot the tears for the teddy, he's sad now too."

"Come back to me" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Babies wait

With temperatures reaching almost 131 degrees Fahrenheit (even higher in the tents), the high-pitched sound of all the little babies crying in distress was heart-breaking.

Each morning, our team in Qayyarah would see parents, guardians, and their children, who walked over three miles to reach our services through hot sand storms with no food and little water.

"Babies wait" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Myself and Dr. Sandra

The best practice treatment for severe acute malnutrition is therapeutic feeding in conjunction with psychosocial support and education.

Our team in Qayyarah assessed and treated women and their babies. Plumpy’Nut, a therapeutic food, was given to babies over six months as part of a continuing therapeutic program through our outpatient nutrition center. While the mental health team provided individual and group psychotherapy, activities for the children, behavioral intervention, psycho-education, baby massages, and psychosocial stimulation groups.

"Myself and Dr. Sandra" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

She waits all week

The mental health team organized for children to participate in painting and drawing activities. After the team disseminated colors, paints, and paper to a thirsty desert full of children, a daily pilgrimage of little artists would make their way to the main gate of the compound and wait patiently with their drawings.

The groups became very successful, with over 100 children turning up on the first day. I was blessed to receive many pictures from the children, including Amira who would wait outside in unforgiving heat until I came back from the other camp just to show me her drawings.

"She waits all week" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

She’s gone

Despite the overwhelming sadness the women experienced, they showed great personal strength and resilience. They also showed a great deal of sisterhood as they shared stories of trauma and tragedy during the group psychosocial sessions.

"She's gone" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)


I love vintage encyclopedias and other old medical books with delicate pencil drawn medical illustrations from yesteryear.

I wanted to draw the last place where most children of Mosul were relatively safe: in their mother’s womb.

"Anatomy" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Dr. Khalaf and Dr. Yousif

Treating cases of severe acute malnutrition is never merely a case of providing food and sustenance. The need for psychological intervention is high, too, because the health of the baby is contingent upon it.

Stressors from the trauma of war or scarcity of food can cause a mother to withdraw psychologically, and in turn, the child becomes apathetic and unwell. The mother's state of mind is then further affected by her child’s withdrawal. This perpetuates the cycle, as the mother withdraws more and the child's health continues to suffer.

The love and support of a great team, as well as the psychosocial support of good friends and family can make all the difference. The Iraqi doctors [with us], Dr. Khalaf and Dr. Yousif, were an asset to the project, showing empathy and compassion towards every patient.

"Dr. Khalaf and Dr. Yousif" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

The power of Plumpy’Nut

Plumpy’Nut is a ready-to-use therapeutic food administered as part of the appetite test in our Qayyarah outpatient nutrition program and once the mother/carer was registered she would return with her child for ongoing assessment.

We had a number of dropouts from the program, but most parents were happy once they saw that their child was healthy again. These parents assisted our community health workers by communicating their confidence in us to others.

"The power of Plumpy'Nut" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Mosul dreaming

Many women, as well as the men, would tearfully reminisce about life in Mosul before it turned ‘black’ – a term used to describe the period of Islamic State group occupation.

The way their faces would beam when they spoke of their lives before, is depicted in this illustration of a woman lovingly wrapping her arms around her memories of the city.

"Mosul dreaming" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)

Arab family

It was not typical to see whole families together due to the war taking fathers, or mothers or children.

In some rare instances, a family would arrive at the project in Qayyarah; the father would wait at the gate while the mother waited to be assessed. Sometimes the father would come inside and be seated in a room along with other male carers.

I witnessed a rare moment one day when a complete family left the compound smiling as they held their baby.

"Arab family" (IRAQ 2018 © Diane Hanna)