TransConflict is pleased to present a letter written by Cathy Breen who is currently part of a peacemaking team in Iraqi Kurdistan with Muslim Peacemaker Teams, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation from Iraq.
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It is hard to put my feelings into words. Just the other day we visited a sheikh whom I had met in Fallujah in 2012. He and his family were forced to flee to Kurdistan about two years ago. Fallujah, as you probably know, is being held by ISIS. None of its residents are allowed to leave. People are literally dying of starvation.
We met in the rented apartment of another sheikh who also fled Fallujah with his family. Although he himself is sick with cancer, both he and our sheikh friend welcomed us warmly. The afternoon was balmy and pleasant, the room was airy and light, with cushions on the floor, a couple of plastic chairs and a bed which also served as a sofa. Water was fetched immediately and we were graciously served sweets and tea. In the course of our visit we were joined by yet another sheikh from Ramadi. The U.N. recently reported that the destruction in Ramadi, also in the Anbar region, was the worst they had witnessed in all of Iraq.
Outwardly everything seemed so normal that at first I forgot I was with people now counted among the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced in Iraq. In the next couple of hours, though, we would hear many tragic stories that would dispel any thought of normalcy.
“We have lost everything,” our sheikh friend said. “We are like babies just being born. We lost schools, universities, houses, bridges, hospitals, markets. All gone. People in the U.S. need to know what their government did to the Iraqi people. All this pain, destruction and hurt.”
Our host told of a woman who had no breast milk to feed her baby as she herself was starving. However, she had a goat and, for a while, she was able to give this milk to her baby son. Then the goat died. At this point in the story, the Iraqi woman translating for me was unable to continue. Overcome by sorrow, she began crying and left the room to collect herself. I learned later that this mother searched desperately for someone to give her baby to in order to save his life.
After a lengthy open discussion, we were invited to join the sheikh’s wife, watching children with other women of the family in a second room. Again a very warm welcome belied an all-too-grim reality. This dear woman’s mother, sister and daughter are all currently trapped in Fallujah, and with ten children in their collective care. On occasion she is able to reach them by phone. The women in Fallujah weep to her across the line. They are reduced to eating grass.
“We can do nothing to save them!” the sheikh’s wife said. “The government doesn’t help! We don’t know how this is possible!” It was incomprehensible to me -I find myself simply unable to imagine this family’s pain. “We have a saying,” she said. “People far away from the fire, don’t get burned. They don’t feel the heat.” Across that phone line, and waiting for the next call, she feels it.
As we stood to take our leave, we embraced and kissed one another. One by one, I took the sweet faces into my hands. They thanked us for the visit. Photos were taken to remember each other by, and I recorded all of the names of their loved ones in Fallujah so they will not be forgotten. I would write these names here, and include the photo for those who read this, but I am fearful to do so. Their situation is already so precarious.
It was early the next day-that is, yesterday morning-that my driver and I left for Dahuk, about three hours northwest of Erbil. The road to Dahuk is dotted with many Yezidi, Christian and Kurdish villages. My driver and his family are themselves internally displaced from one of the villages surrounding Mosel, and our trip would take us close to his village. Actually we entertained the thought of visiting there, but the fear of random explosions and directed ISIS attacks caused us to decide against this visit.
The family that was to host me in Dahuk are Christians from the same village as my driver. They lost a house to ISIS in Mosul in 2008 when they fled after priests were murdered in their church. They had lived there for twenty years. They fled to a village called Teleskuf where they would live for another 6 years until ISIS took this village as well. Now it is a ghost town with only the Peshmerga there.
We passed the area of the Mosul dam and later with my host family we looked together at a map marking the whereabouts of ISIS. “We all know where ISIS (Da’ash) is”, they told me. And lines were drawn on the map to show me their current locations. They were only kilometers away.
In Dahuk we visited with some Yazidis in an unfinished building where they are living. After a word of welcome we were given water, juice and sweets in a ceremonious manner, so typical of the graciousness in the Middle East. An elderly gentleman shared the terrible story of one of his granddaughters, who had been away from the area at the time of the horrific massacre in August of 2014 and the siege of Sinjar mountain. When she returned and learned of the brutality her people had suffered, she found it unbearable and took her life. How does one respond to such pain?
Seated on the mat next to this sorrowing grandfather was a young Yazidi man who is studying in the university. Together with other young Yazidis they plan to reach out to about 5,000 children on the mountain with the hope of educating them. I shared the story of my friends, the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, and the fruits they are reaping from their literacy program with street children.
Also in Dahuk we were able to visit with several internally displaced families living side by side in a church hall. Excited little children led me to the curtains which act as their front doors.
And then they drew back the curtains to reveal their living quarters.
The families behind the curtains like these, in camps or in unfinished buildings and compounds, have for the time a desperately welcomed measure of security. But they have lost everything they owned. The family I stayed with had fled here with only the clothes on their backs. Fourteen people in a car!
Because they are in Kurdistan which is officially still part of Iraq, they have no refugee status and are not eligible for resettlement. They are what is called IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). They would have to go to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan and register there as refugees. They would find themselves, however, at the bottom of the pile. And they have no money with which to sustain themselves.
The husband and father of my host family has a mother and several sisters in the United States. His wife has family in Canada, Germany and the U.S. They must feel the heat from here as few others in a comfortable West, author of so much of this region’s suffering, ever can. “What can we do?” my hosts ask. “We want a future for our children.”
It is hard to put my feelings into words. “People far from the fire don’t feel the heat.” Here in Kurdistan I am closer to the fire as I watch good people getting burnt.
Cathy Breen is a N.Y City Catholic worker who first went to Iraq in 2002 as part of the Iraq Peace Team, a sub-project of the Voices in the Wilderness, implemented by Muslim Peacemaker Teams, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation from Iraq.
This piece was originally published on Muslim Peacemaker Teams’ website, and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.