From horror to hope – Iraq’s displaced camps

by Amal Al-Jubouri, Arab Human Rights Academy
Friday, 5 December 2014 16:55 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Safety is as scarce and the fear of being abducted or killed by ISIS or the militias which patrol the south looms over people daily

The crisis facing Iraq has plunged the country into its darkest period in recent memory. Those who wish to know the real nature of the conflict, we need to listen to those who suffer every day.

We need to ask what they need and we need to ask how we can help. In every visit I make to the shelters I hear so many stories of despair, hunger and heartbreak; stories of how families and lovers and friends and neighbors have been torn apart by the brutality and ever present nature of the conflict.

Many of these stories are the same. Taxi drivers, intellectuals, children, women, police officers, judges, militias, religious figures and tribal sheikhs each know someone who has fled, been killed, lost their home or their family or had some tragedy befall them if that someone is not them. Tragedy is everywhere.

These stories tell us how we can understand what is happening in Iraq. Accounts of politicians which feature so prominently in the media are unable to tell the true stories of struggle in Iraq, and they cannot help us to understand the solution to violence and hatred. Often these so called leaders are an obstacle in themselves, preying on the crisis to serve their own agenda and deepening the sectarian divide for personal gain.

In November, I once again visited Iraq to collect testimonies and learn about the displaced people, hoping to spread their message and gain them some much needed support.

During my visit I passed through Ainkawa by car, travelling to another shelter to take testimonies of the residents of the camps. I received word from one of our volunteers that the camps were flooded.

The small tent cities erected by the UNHCR were slowly drowning in the seasonal rains and the administrators did not have the resources to drain the tents, leaving the task to the resident IDPs. Strict rules within the camps implemented to ration dwindling food supplies and manage the long medical waiting lists have also hampered IDP mobility and freedom, and the people were restless.

Many of the displaced have sought to cling to their last remnants of freedom by avoiding the camps altogether, preferring to live in the streets or in derelict and abandoned buildings. Many of these buildings, which now served as makeshift homes, remain unfinished - their skeletal remains abandoned to the newly homeless. Without walls and doors, these structures provide only minimal shelter from the elements, and those that seek shelter here face a daily struggle to keep warm.

As I drove, a family materialised from the honeycomb of alleys and buildings that are home to these people. They were all women and children, huddled together under a shabby blanket. I stopped the car and went to talk with them - I already knew they are displaced, but I wanted to hear from them as a sign of solidarity.

The eldest daughter, Khalida, is the only one who can speak to me in Arabic, and she relays the story of her family. Her mother was abandoned by their husband years ago after he emigrated to Holland and remarried. He settled down there, and has seemingly forgotten his other family. The remaining family members her elderly mother and her sisters fled their home in Sinjar after ISIS stormed the city to avoid being sold into slavery or killed in the fighting. Their brothers had been executed by ISIS, the three of them leaving behind 11 orphans, the youngest being not even ten days old. Their 13 year old nephew was also murdered, and his body never found.

We sat together in the dirt and rubble of the city while she spoke. Khalida went on to tell me that the Yazidi sect she belonged to sanctions polygamy, with their tradition even encouraging child marriage and confining those women to the home to mother four or five children before even turning eighteen. The traditions strictly prohibit marrying anyone from another religion, and any woman who dares to test this rule being honour killed.

Those Yazidi who were enslaved and forced into marriage by ISIS might also face this unbearable fate if they ever escaped the nightmare; with nowhere to turn, many had already killed themselves rather than face the possibility of being killed by their own family. Clearly, there was no way the family could have remained in Sinjar, their vulnerability as women being so great.

She was noticeably nervous as she recounted her story, her words falling from her mouth uncontrollably at times and her hands keeping busy. It must be terrifying being a displaced person in Iraq at this time more so as a woman, whose body can become part of the battlefield so easily. There is a slight bitterness as she talks about the Bishmagara who fight for Kobani in Syria but not for Sinjar in Iraq. “Should Iraqis not fight for Iraq?”, she says.

There is a lot that IDPs like Khalida need food is running out, camps and people are not prepared for winter. Safety is as scarce and the fear of being abducted or killed by ISIS or the militias which patrol the south leaves a permanent stain on a persons psychology. But Khalida told me that what the IDPs need more than anything is empathy. They need love, understanding and friendship: a chance to be human again rather than just a statistic in a camp database. A sign that things can return to normal, and that one can live in peace again.

Khalida continued, her eyes wide and hot: “We ask the world, as they called for and took action against Boko Haram to save 300 girls, to do the same to save the 2,000 Yazidi girls who are suffering and displaced and in danger.”

As the day drew to a close, Khalida withdrew to her tent inside the hollowedout building. Rats scurried around the children, sharing the scraps of food that the family survived on. But, even amongst the despair, she remained hopeful she tells me she wants to keep her life going, to provide hope for the children and her family. She showed me a barrel, rusted orange and hollow, which she had transformed into makeshift oven to bake bread. The bread it produced was a discoloured brown, rust from the barrel having infiltrated it. It provided them with little sustenance, for sure. But it did provide them with hope.

Amal Al-Jubouri is the director of the Arab Human Rights Academy in London