*By Gregg Brekke
Even as hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant attacks find refuge in the towns of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, agencies assisting these internally displaced persons (IDPs) warn of a huge unmet humanitarian need exacerbated by the looming onset of winter.
It is this humanitarian need that a World Council of Churches (WCC) staff delegation visiting northern Iraq from 27 to 31 August heard about, and observed first hand. The WCC subsequently issued a statement calling on the Iraqi government to provide protection and support for its people, and for the international community greatly to increase their humanitarian response.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) reports that over 1.4 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes since January. Those who have recently fled Mosul, the Nineveh plain and surrounding areas have found temporary refuge in the Kurdish towns of Erbil, Dohuk and in many other towns and villages in the region.
Haval Mohammed Amedy, head of Emergency Operations for the Dohuk Governate in the Kurdistan region, is coordinating the relief efforts of governmental and non-governmental (including church) agencies. Noting that IDPs are housed in 673 schools and nearly all places of worship throughout the Governate, his office’s work results in what Amedy says is the most efficient use of material and expertise flowing into the region.
“We collect all the resource [information] here. Our colleagues from different agencies meet on a weekly basis – we share the information, see where there are gaps and where we can improve our implementation to overcome this problem altogether,” he says.
The town of Khanke, just north of Dohuk, has swollen from a population of 25,000 to more than 100,000 mostly Yazidi people, fleeing from the genocidal violence of ISIS in Sinjar and elsewhere. Housed in schools, public buildings and local homes, along with a sprawling 60,000 person UNHCR tent encampment on the outskirts of town, these displaced people have stretched the capacities of the town’s infrastructure. Water, sanitation and food preparation are continuing concerns for humanitarian groups as this population settles in for what may be an extended stay in lieu of any foreseeable prospect of a return to homes and settlements still under ISIS control.
The plight of displaced people
Most of those the WCC delegation interviewed fled their homes with only the clothes they were wearing. The brutal refrain of ISIS – convert, leave or die – was repeated in town after town, emptying these settlements of all religious groups other than those ISIS claims to represent. A recurring theme in the accounts received by the WCC delegation was the ease with which ISIS forces were able to recruit local Muslims as their agents in these towns, betraying and expelling their neighbours and acting as jailors for those who would not or could not leave.
Ayad Hajjo, a Yazidi man from a village south of Mosul, told of a massacre by ISIS fighters following his community’s retreat to a nearby mountain. Those unable to leave the mountain because of exhaustion or lack of mobility were without defense. “ISIS fighters came in a few hundred cars and attacked the people who couldn’t move. When they were done, they destroyed all our religious objects,” he says. Following the attack, Hajjo says his brother went to the mountain to investigate. “He found only bodies,” he says.
Given the urgency with which people were forced to flee, few have any possessions, money or documentation such as passports or identification cards, and are at the mercy of aid organizations for shelter and clothing.
Peer Deyan, head of Khanke’s governing board, says the town is doing its best to accommodate such a huge influx of people, but cautioned that without continued and increased help from aid organizations, they will not be able to keep up with the demands.
A humanitarian crisis
Immediate needs, he says, are for winter clothing and shelter, in addition to individual cooking supplies. Although UNHCR tents fill the landscape for kilometres, these vinyl walled structures will provide no protection against the cold winters of northern Iraq where nighttime temperatures can fall below freezing. Given that most people fled their homes in the height of summer with the clothes they were wearing, cold-weather clothing is urgently needed.
Under the supervision of UNHCR and other aid organizations, communal kitchens have been established within the camps and in town centers. While Deyan says this is an efficient way to feed such large numbers of people, he feels that families need to be able to cook for themselves at some point. “It would signal a return to something normal, for them simply to cook their own meal, instead of standing in line after line to attend to their basic needs,” he says.
Highlighting the observed and reported needs, Peter Prove, director of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, sent a report to the UN Human Rights Council Special Session on the human rights situation in Iraq on 1 September. Prove emphasized the immediacy and scale of the need for humanitarian assistance, saying the situation "fully warrants the focused and continuous attention of the entire international community."
Prove's report also called on the UN to condemn those who foster a culture of impunity in the region, urging the formation of a war crimes tribunal to address and prosecute those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq and Syria. He additionally asked that those in the global community who provide material, financial and moral support to ISIS be "named and held accountable" for perpetuating terrorism, extremist ideologies and violence in the region.
Need for a comprehensive response
In addition to these calls, Prove asked the UN to investigate violations of religious freedom against Yazidi, Christian and Muslim minority communities by ISIS forces. He notes that the Christian community in Mosul, one of the oldest Christian communities in the East, has been all but eliminated. "There is no Christian left in the city, and the physical vestiges of this ancient community – the churches, monasteries and sacred texts – are being desecrated and destroyed," his report reads.
Following Prove's report, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, said in a statement to the member churches, “The Iraqi government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and if they cannot do that then the international community must step in to assure the safety and security of people who have been brutally forced away from their homes… The application of international military force in the region, if any, should be undertaken under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council."
Tveit emphasized the multiple needs in the region, calling for the protection of religious minorities even as aid arrives. "The international community must exercise its responsibility to protect these extremely vulnerable people, including Christians and members of other religious communities in the region," he said.
As of the time of writing, the UN has not formulated a long term response to the situation beyond the massive distribution of humanitarian supplies already underway.
* Gregg Brekke is a freelance journalist specializing in human rights, global health and issues pertinent to world religions. He is founder of SixView Studios and president of the U.S.-based Associated Church Press.
Watch videos from the WCC Iraq visit 2014
WCC calls for increased humanitarian response and responsibility to protect populations in Northern Iraq (WCC news release of 4 September 2014)
Churches ask Human Rights Council to support religious minority communities in Iraq (WCC news release of 2 September 2014)
Video of debate with WCC staff member Carla Khijoyan on Swiss TV channel RTS following the Iraq visit (in French)
Commission of the Churches on International Affairs
Solidarity with churches in the Middle East