31 Jan 2017 |

Iraq 2014: Emergency aid in the chaos of war

In the summer of 2014, the world was shaken by the news of Islamic State’s horrific treatment of everyone who did not support their rigid interpretation of Islam. Mission East is helping displaces Iraqis with support for body and mind.

By Svend Løbner, freelance journalist

Men were gathered and executed. Women were raped. And young girls were sold as sex slaves to the fighters of the terrorist movement. Islamic State created horror everywhere, and the population fled in a hurry. A major humanitarian disaster had begun. Today, more than three million Iraqis are uprooted and displaced from their homes.

“They grabbed my daughter before my very eyes. I begged them to leave her alone, but the ID commander said no,” a woman told Mission East managing director Kim Hartzner during a distribution of humanitarian aid.

“From a distance we could see that IS separated women and men and then shot all the men,” a father said and continued: “IS captured my uncle and 70 family members. Only two survived. They were witnesses to the IS executions of all the others.”

No shelter from the snow and cold

Mission East started delivering aid in August 2014, and has since then helped more than 57,000 people with water, food, shelter, hygiene kits, cooking gear, heaters for the cold winters and air coolers for the unbearably hot summers. It is not the first time that Mission East is present in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Mission East helped the Kurds who were returning to Dohuk in Northern Iraq.

In 2014, the work also began in the area around Dohuk, where families had escaped to the Kurdish mountains in such large numbers that less than half of them found a place in the UN camps for IDPs. The rest had to settle for stairways, thin tents and half-completed concrete buildings that were completely exposed to the winter cold, snow and wind.

Ancient cultures are threatened with extinction. At a church service on 23 August 2014, the patriarchs of four ancient churches met to assess the dangers against a church that has existed on the Nineveh Plains for 1,700 years, making it the oldest in the world. Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II made an urgent appeal to the West for help:

“We do not want our people to be uprooted,” he told Mission East Managing Director Kim Hartzner after the service.

UN: IS-terror is genocide

However, it soon turned out that the small Kurdish people, the Yezidis, were the hardest hit. The displaced Christians can rely on relatively strong networks, but the Yezidi families are often completely left to themselves.

Mission East gained access to Sinjar Mountain in March 2015. Thousands of Yezidis had sought refuge here when Islamic State occupied their main city, Sinjar, and hunted them up the mountain. Men were gathered and shot. Women were captured and abducted. Pregnant women, elderly people and persons with disabilities were left to die on their way up the barren mountain. The survivors went without food or drink for days before an escape corridor was established. Thousands chose to go further, but 1,600 families remained on the mountain hoping to return to their homes. They still live in tents or makeshift huts on the mountains, surviving on aid from, among others, Mission East and its local partner, Humanity.

“When IS attacked us, we know that they would kill us so we had to get away in a hurry,” said Azid, a father of eight children who survives for the second year thanks to the help from Mission East and others. “ID told people that they had to convert to Islam or die. Some converted but were killed anyway,” he said.

UN reports call the brutal IS attacks against the Yezidis for “genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Mission East helps everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion or political opinions. So it came natural to assist the displaced Sunni Arabs in the Kirkuk area in 2015, when they started to flee IS-controlled areas in ever larger numbers. These fleeing families also told countless horror stories about Islamic State and how they take hostage even those who share their creed. “We had a choice: Die or escape!” Haseem said. He has a disability and had to flee across minefields on his crutches.  

Rays of hope for children and young

As rays of hope amidst unbearable tragedies, Mission East has founded a number of ’psychosocial centres’. The gruesome violence leaves the tormented population deeply traumatized. But at the six Mission East centres, children and young women are welcomed by friendly staff who introduce them to everyday life. At the centres, children can play, draw, play music, do drama and learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Young women can safely share their experiences with trained advisors and also learn needlework, IT, music, hairdressing, Arabic and English.

”Children have a unique opportunity to attend the centre. There is nothing like this in Sinjar,” the children’s mothers said in an independent evaluation report about the work of Mission East on Sinjar Mountain. “I had started to read but had forgotten everything, because I had not been to school for a year,” a little boy said and added: “When you opened the centre, I got my knowledge back.”

Reconstruction is the next step

Mission East will also assist the displaced once they return to their villages and houses after the war. If all goes well, the returnees will get help to repair and rebuild their houses and villages and receive support to resume farming, beekeeping and trade. “The IS rampage has destroyed the infrastructure, including the water and electricity supply. They ruined the houses and stole all the inventory from the schools,” a mayor from a liberated town near Sinjar told Kim Hartzner.

Sinjar City itself has been completely devastated. The same scenario undoubtedly awaits once Mosul has been liberated. That is why emergency aid and development aid must go hand in hand. Emergency relief for the displaced is only the beginning of an effort to create order from chaos, rebuild local communities and give the population renewed hope for the future.

The original Danish language version of this article was published in a special edition of the Mission East magazine to commemorate the organisation's 25-year Jubilee in November 2016.


Facts: Christians in Iraq

Several church communities exist in Iraq. The largest groups belong to the Assyrian and Armenian congregations. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, and during the subsequent conflicts, many Christians fled the country. In 1987, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, today there are less than 450.000. Many churches have been attacked with car bombs, and in several places, Christians have been forced to convert to Islam.


Facts: Who are the Yezidis?

The Yezidis are a Kurdish minority who live in the mountainous areas of Northern Iraq and also in Georgia, Armenia and Syria. Some have emigrated to Europe. Around the world, there are 1.5-2 million, of which 100,000 live in Europe. The Yezidi religion is monotheistic and is believed to be more than 4,000 years old. The group is also called Ezidi or Yazidi.


Facts: Mission East returns to Iraq

Mission East has previously worked in Iraq. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds began to return to Dohuk in Northern Iraq. Mission East helped them rebuild houses, reestablish infrastructure and supported their efforts to feed themselves. Mission East worked in the country until January 2006 and then reopened an office as a response to the humanitarian crisis that began in 2014.