Our last day in Iraq. We leave Erbil early tomorrow morning. All credit to Christian Aid's Louise Finan and Laura Taylor for putting together and leading an excellent visit to this tragic land. Four days is not long enough to get a grip on things, but the programme shone light on a number of interconnected issues whilst allowing us to put names and faces to the statistics.

For example, this morning we joined Christian Aid's partner REACH to visit two families in the suburbs of Erbil. The first were Syrian refugees from Aleppo. The young woman, holding her very young son, struggled as she described the beheading of her big brother in July 2013. Her two teenage sisters work in a factory in order to bring money in for the family which has no other means of support or sustenance – they are 15 and 17 years old. Her nephew joined us – he had seen the body of his beheaded father and was traumatised. Her husband is missing, presumed dead. Her parents are in poor health and they all live together. They would like to go back to Aleppo, but it looks like there is barely any Aleppo left for them to return to. REACH has enabled the young mother to train as a hairdresser and start a small business. She has considered getting smuggled across the Aegean, but her family insist she would have to leave her young son behind. She is pessimistic about her son's future.

They also believe that Syria is now too fractured for peaceful reconciliation to be possible.

The second family fled from Mosul when Daesh/ISIS moved in. They were clear: Daesh kill anyone and everyone. They destroy everything. What will there be to go back to?

OK, they are the human face of the stuff we see in the news or hear chucked around in tabloid debates about “migrants”. We went from there to meet the Director General of the Kurdistan Ministry of the Interior's Joint Crisis Coordination Centre. His story was consistent with those told by other, more independent interlocutors (including from the UK and UN):

  • Public salaries have not been paid for five months.
  • Only 9% of financial support promised by international partners has so far got through.
  • Baghdad is not passing on the 17% of its budget revenue it has agreed to do.
  • There appears to be no exit strategy for the post-ISIS era.
  • While resources are diminishing, the population in Kurdistan has increased by 30% because of IDPs and refugees.
  • Capacity exists – funding does not.
  • The situation is unsustainable, the infrastructure is under huge pressure, and a bigger crisis might lie ahead.
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government wants people voluntarily to return to their homes, to retain the mix of minorities, and get international help in creating peaceful reconciliation.
  • They need financial and technical assistance from the international community, but if these go via Baghdad, they will never reach Kurdistan.

Our visits concluded as, coincidentally, US Secretary of State John Kerry described ISIS as having “committed genocide” against Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. This is a little bewildering. ISIS – Sunni Muslims – have been murdering Sunnis, too. According to the people we have met this week, ISIS is indiscriminate in their savagery, even though they target Christians, Yazidis and Shia in particular. Genocide is to be legally defined, not politically. What is not in doubt is the sheer horror and destructiveness of what ISIS is doing to ordinary people whose lives were destroyed in the most brutal way.

Now, all this begs wider questions. I will get back to them in due course. But, the dominant question in my own mind just now is what reconstruction in Iraq might look like … and whether Iraq can survive.

Which makes the humanitarian work going on here all the more impressive. No guarantees – just commitment.

 

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I am in Northern Iraq with a small group under the auspices of Christian Aid. Yesterday morning we met a group involved in reconstruction and development work in Duhok before splitting into three groups to visit a Christian refugee family, a Yazidi refugee family and a Syrian Sunni refugee family.

I went with two colleagues to visit the Syrian Muslims. We sat in their rented home and listened to their story. Having joined in the demonstrations against the Assad regime in 2011, they were forced to flee once the violence began. They left Damascus, stayed in the border with Iraq in a camp, hoping they would be able to return to their home before long. In 2012 they gave up and ended up in Duhok. They were clear that they are Syrian first and Kurdish second.

Their youngest son is ill and cannot get adequate treatment. He is fourteen years old and has had no schooling since 2012. His father is not allowed to work. There is another son and two daughters. They want to return to Syria, but they have no hope. Each day is hemmed in by unimaginable and unmeasurable helplessness and hopelessness. Their hospitality was great, their hope tiny. Their dignity was intact.

How do you live hopefully, one day at a time, when there is nothing to do, no work, no education for your children, no home to return to, and no idea if some sort of solution might come in one month, one year, one decade, or never?

This visit was followed in the evening by a meeting with the Iraq director of MAG (Mines Advisory Group). They have been here for 23 years, clearing mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from the 1980s (Iran-Iraq War), the 1990s (Gulf War), the 2000s (now Daesh), and Saddam mining his own country along borders. There are 20 million mines in 3,500 minefields. This has, for example, turned the breadbasket of Iraq – the Nineveh Plain – into a disaster zone (adding to the desertion of almost the entire Christian population under Daesh). Despite more than 300 mine clearance engineers working continuously, 2015 saw 72 civilian casualties, 42 of them fatal. In Sinjar alone there were 28 civilian casualties, 8 of them fatal.

How are people to “go home” when their homes have been destroyed, social infrastructure wiped out, and the only source of sustenance – the land – mined?

What is most clear here is the destruction of trust between communities that previously had cohabited for centuries. It is hard to see a future.

More anon.