For the past few days I have been traveling in Northern Iraq together with my colleagues and Metin Rhawi from the European Syriac Union. During some intense days we had discussions with political representatives in the region, met with major church leaders and visited refugee camps for the Assyrians/Syriacs /Chaldeans and Yazidis who have fled the Islamic State (IS).
The humanitarian situation is extremely difficult, and more extensive than what previously have been revealed. After the IS invaded important parts of Iraq in 2014, about 1.8 million people were forced to leave their homes. Today they live as refugees in their own country. In the Nineveh Plains, where the majority of the country’s Christians have lived for nearly 2000 years, communities and villages were emptied of their population. People have fled to relative safety of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, or to Europe.
The needs in terms of housing, health and education are overwhelming, and my conclusion is that the international community must continue to assist with extensive humanitarian efforts. Efforts has been made, for instance by the European Union, but further assistance is required, both in the short and long term perspective.
That the conditions for the internally displaced persons are difficult became clear to us when we visited a refugee camp near Mount Sinjar where 12,000 Yazidian refugees live. Stories of imprisonment, torture, persecution and assassinations after IS ’ravages met us, as well as frustration and despair of not being able to return home. The grasping meeting with a seven year old boy, who lost both his parents in the genocide, is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Recurring in the conversations were the pledges for international support for a ”safe haven”, a protected zone. Both political and religious leaders emphasized the importance of helping the ethno-religious groups, who form Iraq’s indigenous people, to return to their homes. This will only be possible if their safety can be guaranteed in the Nineveh Plains – a safety that requires an internationally protected zone – a safe haven. The alternative is an even more extensive emigration to Europe, which in practice results in that the Christian faith, traditions and history will disappear from the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is already about to happen, as we could witness with our own eyes when we visited Alqosh, which is the last populated Christian community in the Nineveh Plains, and its neighboring village Teleskuf, which is evacuated. Both sites are located at the front line where the IS forces are less than three kilometers away from the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean security forces from the Nineveh Plain Forces and Nineveh Plain Protection Units.
Teleskuf was captured by IS in August 2014 but was liberated a few weeks later during a military operation from the coalition fighting IS. Today the community is destroyed and a horrific atmosphere rests over the empty streets. The traces of genocide are clear; Nazarene (Arabic for ”Christian”) symbols on the houses, destroyed Christian symbols and remains of book burnings of Christian literature.
The military units we met stand face to face with IS, still they showed a firm determination to continue their efforts to completely liberate the Nineveh Plain. At the same time the soldiers and their commanders made it clear to us that without additional military aid from the outside world the task are impossible.
In the fight to save lives and stop the ongoing genocide, it is essential that more countries join the international military coalition fighting IS. Without better armament, without troops on the ground and intensified air operations, it is impossible to recapture the strategically important city of Mosul, which is necessary to establish basic security in the region.
Many countries could do much more to assist in this difficult situation. This means also Sweden, which has equipment and know-how that is currently requested by the coalition.
In this context it is important to recall the recent decisions of the European Parliament and the US Congress to recognize IS’ crimes as genocide. A classification is followed by a legal and moral obligation to intervene and use all available means to stop the ongoing genocide. At the same time awareness is high among those affected that only the UN Security Council can adopt a binding decision by international law that genocide is occurring.
In the refugee camp Ankawa II, we met a family who, because of their Christian background, was forced to flee from Qaraqosh. In our conversations with them they spoke about the abuses and suffering that they as a family had lived through. We asked them whether it is possible to forgive the terrorists of IS. The family’s 11-year-old daughter gave an answer that gives cause for reflection:
”Maybe I have no reason to forgive. But our faith tells us to forgive and that is what I will do.”
Tens of thousands of Assyrians/ Syriacs /Chaldeans in Iraq and Syria have lost everything they own and have. Ethnic cleansing and genocide in process, still many Christians believe in the ability to forgive and to go on living their lives.
In this respect, the Islamic State is the big loser.