Report on visit to Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) May 2017

Our visit

Purpose

Erica Henley, Cath Kuipers, Leanne Rogers, along with Ainslie and Rob Bos, travelled to Kurdistan earlier this month. Our purpose was to see the refugee situation first-hand, to give practical support, and to see what we, and others in Australia, could do to help.

Aussie travellers

Operation Hope Australia

We went as part of Operation Hope Australia, a small Australian organisation for people committed to assisting people in refugee camps. In 2016 a group went to Greece to work in the Oinofyta refugee camp.

Since then, we have been fundraising, contributing some thousands of dollars to help build the hospital at Hasansham U2, located some 23 km to the east of Mosul. The camp was set up for people fleeing IS (Da’esh) in Mosul (see below).

We partnered with Adventist Help (part of ADRA – Adventist Development and Relief Agency www.adra.org.au) in Erbil. We also cooperated with the New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq (part of St Rita Hands of Hope and the Chaldean Catholic Church), working in the area north of Mosul.

DSCF1326

Location

Greater Kurdistan

Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Britain facilitated the establishment of independent nations in Mesopotamia. The Kurds, a distinctive ethnic group with their own history, culture and language, were overlooked. They have since been persecuted in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Saddam Hussain was responsible for bulldozing 4,000 to 6,000 Kurdi villages in Iraq. Other minority groups, incl. Assyrians and Yazidis, were also persecuted.[1]

In 1992, the Kurds in Iraq (but not other countries) attained a large measure of autonomy. The Kurdi army, the Peshmerga, is currently fighting alongside Iraqi forces against IS (ISIS/Da’esh).

The Kurdistan Autonomous Region (Iraq)

The Kurdistan Autonomous Region within Iraq has a population of approximately 5.5 million and covers an area of 78,700 km2. It currently hosts about 2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from other parts of Iraq mostly from Mosul. Kurdistan is governed by a parliamentary democracy with a Prime Minister and President. Compared with other parts of Iraq, Kurdistan is relatively prosperous, with an economy based on agriculture and some oil. Uniting the all Kurds in the Kurdi region as an independent nation recognised by the UN continues to be a goal.

For further information see: http://thekurdishproject.org/history-and-culture/kurdish-democracy/krg-kurdistan-regional-government/

Kurdistan and Da’esh

As we travelled between the camps, we passed through villages bombed by Da’esh. The people we spoke to were all scathing in their condemnation of Da’esh and insisted they were not Muslims.

Many spoke of the numbers of relatives and friends killed. Some people showed us their physical injuries, but the psychological damage will no doubt take longer to heal. All are traumatised.

Erbil

Erbil (Arbil, Hawler) is the capital of Kurdistan and its seat of government. We were based there in a suburb known as “Italian City 2”.

Erbil is located approximately 100 km east of Mosul (Mosul is just outside of the Kurdistan area). Erbil is clustered around the central citadel. Parts of Erbil have been occupied upwards of 5,000 years.

Citadel

 Al-Qosh

We also travelled to Al-Qosh, a Chaldean Catholic village, Aramaic speaking. This is located to the north of Mosul and south of the large town of Dohuk. The priest there is Fr Araam, with whom we were able to have several conversations.

When refugees and IDPs began arriving in the area a couple of years ago, Fr. Araam challenged his people to take in 1,000 families. They did so, at great cost to themselves. Through clandestine radio contact between Fr Araam and the forces opposed to Da’esh, Al Qosh escaped occupation and damage by Da’esh.

For further information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alqosh.

New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq

The Chaldean Catholic Church has created the New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq. It aims to offer group work and one-to-one counselling and support as well as various forms of diversional therapy to help in the process of healing. While we were there, a psychological first aid training course was planned for its staff by Australian psychologist, Sharon Dalton. This was attended by Erica and Leanne from our group.

trainer and trainees

St Homizd Monastery

Established in the seventh century, the monastery is an important site in the mountains near Al-Qosh. It housed up to 400 monks, with the cells cut into the rock. It is still a site of pilgrimage and some of us found our visit there extremely moving.

For futher information see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabban_Hormizd_Monastery.

Telkef

A few were us were able to worship with the Christian community at Telkef, south of Al-Qosh and about 20 km north of Mosul. The liturgical language and everyday life of the Chaldean Catholic community is Aramaic. The St George Church in Telkef had been badly damaged and desecrated by IS and the congregation of about 200 people was meeting in a crowded upstairs hall, while the church was being repaired.

Refugee and IDP camps

The camps

We were able to visit a number of camps, east of Mosul and one camp north of Mosul. The camps typically house between 10,000 to 50,000 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) with Syrian Muslims, Yazidis, and people fleeing Mosul in separate camps. The camps are actually spartan tent cities, with shared taps, toilets and showers. Some camps have been in existence for 3 years or so and some were receiving their first residents while we were there.

The camps we visited included:

  • Hassan Sham U2
  • Hassan Sham U3
  • Khazir M1
  • Harsham
  • Kawergosk
  • Garmawa

view of camp amidst rubble

Hassan Sham U2 camp

While we were in Kurdistan, the first families from Mosul arrived at Hassan Sham U2, and the camp was filling up quickly. Tragically, the cemetery across the road had many freshly dug graves, with people who had died along the road from Mosul or who died shortly after arriving in the camp.

Many people told horrific stories of their experiences in Mosul. Everyone has friends and relatives who were killed, some by beheading in their presence. Some have been permanently injured. A young girl with obvious facial disfiguration shared by sign language how a bomb had exploded near her, badly scarred the whole left side of her body and deafened her.

Another young girl was horribly burned all over her body. She had been placed in a hospital in Erbil, but with the hospital stretched to the limit, she was deteriorating rapidly. Some of our group were able to provide appropriate nutrition and arrange for her to evacuated to a hospital in Italy, which had agreed to treat her free of charge.

One person told Adventist Help personnel that the only food available in Mosul had been grass which was being sold at 14,000 Iraqi Dinar (approx. AUD $14) per kg. A family covered in scab-like disfigurations told us that they had not been able to wash for over 18 months. Many children in Mosul had not been to school for three years. Those boys who had attended madrassas organised by Da’esh had only learned the Qur’an. Babies had been kept alive on rice water but were, of course, seriously malnourished.

Our group assisted Adventist Help in constructing a hospital in the Hassan Sham U2 refugee camp, both through financial support and labour. It will serve a number of camps, a total population of about 100,000 people. It is planned to operate 24/7 with three shifts of medical staff, both locals and volunteers from abroad. Our major goal was to get it built and ready to receive its first patients.

Adventist Help has now been asked also to provide a primary care, dental facility and a Mental Health facility.

Hospital trusses up

Kawergosk Camp

Kawergosk is a well-established camp of Syrians, who have been there for about three years. It has a school, which we were able to visit briefly.

ADRA ran a youth program there, offering computer classes, English classes and a music program, all of which were eagerly attended. They also have a children’s space, but this does not currently operate due to shortage of funds.

Schools

Some of our number attended a school for displaced refugee girls. The school is located at Kalak on a tributary of the Tigris. The teachers were mainly displaced volunteers. The girls came in the afternoon after the normal school classes concluded. The parents of the girls aim to take their families back to Mosul as soon as it is safe to do so. Items needed include:

  • The gift of a journal and ballpoint pen for the girls
  • Computers for the staff
  • Stationery
  • School sports uniforms and equipment.

Some of us also attended a school at the Harsham camp (not to be confused with Hassan Sham U2).

Hospital

Some of us attended a paediatric hospital in Erbil. This takes some emergency cases from the camps. Most days about 1,000 patients present for medical care and 220 are admitted. It needs milk for the children, as well as other medical resources. There have been funding cuts and the hospital is struggling to cope.

Our impressions

We very much appreciated the friendliness and hospitality of the Kurds. They genuinely valued our being there to do what little we could. (Sometimes people operating businesses refused payment because we were there to help.) The Kurds have been persecuted themselves and are now hosting up to two million refugees (equivalent to almost 40% of their population).

The refugees and IDPs have suffered horrendously. While they are enormously relieved their lives are no longer in danger, they continue to live under very difficult conditions. Living in flimsy tents in temperatures that range from freezing to 50oC is difficult. While there is sufficient water for drinking (although often not for showering) and food parcels are provided, life is spartan. All are traumatised and we admire their courage and determination.

We also admire the work of the aid agencies and their workers, usually volunteers. We met people who spend blocks of time in their own countries working to earn some money and then fly at their own expense to volunteer in the neediest parts of the globe.

The Syrian refugees have little hope of being able to return in the near future. The ones from Mosul would naturally like to return but it is likely that their homes and possessions have been destroyed and their former jobs no longer exist. Much of the countryside is littered with unexploded landmines and other devices. These will need to be cleared before agriculture is resumed.

Erica Henley, Cath Kuipers, Leanne Rogers, Ainslie Bos, Robert Bos

May 2017