Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East
International Christian Concern
The ethnic and religious cleansing of Iraq has created a disaster of staggering proportions. More than 1.2 million people have been driven from their homes just since June and are now living as internally displaced people (IDPs). Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities have been the victims of horrible atrocities. More than 12,000 civilians have been killed in just the first nine months of 2014, according to Minority Rights Group International.
For the Christian community that has called Iraq home for centuries, there are fears this may be the final exodus. More than 100,000 people have been driven out of their homes and are unsure if they will ever be able to return. The concerns are for both the short-term survival of those facing huge humanitarian needs, but also for their long-term presence in the country.
Surviving in the Short-Term
Esho Esho, an activist currently based in Erbil, gave International Christian Concern (ICC) an exclusive update on the current situation for Iraq's Christian communities. Esho works with A Demand for Action, a global initiative to support the protection of the Assyrians (incl. Syriacs/Chaldeans) and other minorities in Iraq & Syria.
"The IDPs are still suffering in their lives wherever they are, in schools, churches, caravans, or in the unfinished buildings. Now, since winter is around the corner, they will face the problem of rain and cold weather,"
Esho told ICC. Just over two months ago, the concern was temperatures that were regularly in excess of 115 degrees. In August ICC's team visited a makeshift camp where at least five people, four infants and an elderly man, had died as a result of exposure to the intense heat.
Now the situation has changed. Rain has moved in, with torrential downpours turning the makeshift camps into muddy, disease-laden pits. Skin disease and other communicable illnesses have become a major concern, an ICC partner reported last week.
"The IDPs who faced the rain disaster last week, they have been moved to some caravans [temporary shelters], so this issue is partially solved, but this is a very short-term solution. When the real cold weather will start in about three weeks, the IDPs will suffer, especially those who are living in the unfinished buildings," Esho said.
The international community is trying to respond by providing shelter and heating equipment to many of these families before the deadly cold arrives, but unfortunately it has not been able to cope with the scale of the problem. Esho told ICC,"Assistance is arriving from different NGOs and from the UN, but the Iraqi government aid is very limited. The big aid is not arriving correctly; there was a project of a complex of tents was supposed to be done by now. The foundation was laid and then the tents disappeared? Where are they?" The reality is that, while there are hundreds of thousands of people who have received assistance, hundreds of thousands more continue to fall through the gaps of the major relief efforts. According to a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report, as of October, only 61 percent of those targeted to receive water, sanitation and hygiene had been reached, leaving 39 percent, more than 700,000, in need.
If these communities are going to survive in the short-term, then immediate assistance must continue to arrive to prepare them for a winter away from their homes. Yet, for many the feeling is that the current situation as IDPs is just a temporary stop and soon they will leave their country altogether.
Staying for the Long-Term?
Over the past decade, Iraq's Christian community has shrunk by more than one million. Now, with the ethnic cleansing of Iraq's religious minorities, this may be the final exodus, as many are looking to leave.
When Esho was asked about what can be done to help Christians stay in Iraq, his response was troubling.
"Not much can be done, Assyrians, who also are called Chaldean and Syriacs, lost trust in both the Iraq and the Kurdish government. They are losing hope as well."
There seems to be little hope for this trust to be restored. Christians have lost trust in their government to provide them protection when their cities were abandoned in the face of ISIS threats. More than 30,000 Iraqi soldiers were stationed in Mosul, and yet it fell to an estimated 800 fighters, sending some 500,000 people out of their homes.
Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda expressed the frustrations of many with the government in Baghdad to assist with the humanitarian needs.
"The reality is that Christians have received no support from the central government. They have done nothing for them, absolutely nothing," he said.
Then Qaraqosh, Iraq's Christian capital, was "wiped clean" and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew, unable to match the weaponry acquired by ISIS fighters. While the Kurdish controlled region has welcomed many of them, the commitment for the long term is not guaranteed.
As the United States and others have formed a coalition to confront ISIS, the feeling of hopelessness has not yet changed. "They were relying on the international community, but they are very disappointed now, especially after what has been said by the U.S. administration that no forces will be sent on the ground and that the war against ISIS might take a very long time,"Esho said.
"Many people are looking for any opportunity to leave the country, including those who once were against immigration," he continued.
For Christians to be willing to stay in Iraq, they will need to be able to return home, according to Esho. The current situation, living as IDPs, finding shelter in schools, in the concrete shells of unfinished buildings or in over-crowded apartments, is not sustainable. Many will continue to stream out of the country.
"The only thing that will keep these people in Iraq is to liberate their lands as soon as possible and provide them with a protection zone under some international forces," he told ICC.
Retaking the land captured by ISIS, the ancient homelands of Iraq's Christians, and protecting it from future attacks, are what Esho says is necessary for Christians to stay in Iraq.
These actions will not happen unless there is significant pressure in the west, Esho said."More powerful demonstrations need to be organized in the West, with some real action so our voice will be heard."
For interviews, contact Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East: RM-ME@persecution.org
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