After the Islamic State deluge, who will save Iraqis?
There’s a bit in a new blog post from Amnesty’s researcher on the ground in northern Iraq which caught my eye. In the post, from the Kurdish-majority city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, a Yezidi man who survived the horrors of Mount Sinjar explains what saved him and his family from near-certain death after they escaped from the onslaught of Islamic State gunmen:
“When we fled we carried as much water as we could. The little children carried one litre of water, I carried 15 litres and my oldest son carried 20 litres. We rationed it very strictly during our time on the mountain and that saved us.”
The speaker is Suleiman Shaibo Sido, a father of eight children who can be seen relating some of what his family endured - and are still enduring - in the video embedded in the Amnesty blog. The temperatures on the desolate slopes of Mount Sinjar reach the high 30s at this time of year. Water is the difference between life and death.
But think about what Suleiman says. He carried 15 litres. One of his sons 20 litres. That’s a back-breaking load. I regularly buy 12-packs of 1.5-litre bottles of water from my local Turkish-run grocer’s in east London. That’s 18 litres. I can just - just, with a struggle, puffing and panting as I do it - carry one of these packs from my car and into my flat. The thought of carrying this kind of weight for any distance whatsoever ... god.
It’s clear that thousands of other people in Iraq who’ve been trying to escape from rampaging Islamic State killers have had to do similarly heroic/desperate things. Their lives are, to say the least, in utter turmoil.
Following the horrific killing of the US photo-journalist James Foley, international anti-Islamic State rhetoric has gone up a notch. World leaders are all inveighing against the group. But in truth it’s still not really clear what’s being done to help the Yezidis, the Christians, the Shi'a Turkmen, the Shabaks, and indeed anyone in Iraq (including Sunni Muslims) threatened by the Islamic State and other armed jihadi groups.
Action so far has been either too limited or in some regards positively disturbing. In a series of early reprisal attacks, Iraqi government forces and their Shia militia allies went on wild, vengeful killing sprees. Meanwhile, despite the fanfare about the United States “assisting the Kurds” through “limited interventions”, the prospect of aerial bombing from US forces is hardly reassuring given the USA’s wretched record of killing civilians in other bombing campaigns.
The UN Refugee Agency now sees northern Iraq as a major crisis, with 600,000 people forced out of their homes in Mosul and the surrounding areas. (Frighteningly enough, another half a million people have also been displaced by fighting in Anbar province, a situation currently getting very little media coverage).
Though the terrible mountain-side ordeal of the Yezidis has captured the lion’s share of international headlines, it’s the plight of Christians from northern Iraq that has actually generated most calls for international assistance - including for asylum to be offered. For its part the UK has been typically tight-lipped about this (as Joel Taylor notes, the UK’s much-trumpeted “proud record” of helping threatened people around the world through offering asylum is largely a historical thing these days).
Christians are certainly at risk, yet as Suleiman Shaibo Sido himself says, the future for Yezidis in Iraq is also extremely bleak. Suleiman’s water-carrying family survived Mount Sinjar through good planning, great sacrifice and some luck.
It almost fits with Yezidi tradition. Because Yezidi lore has it that Mount Sinjar is where Noah’s Ark is supposed to have ended up after surviving the deluge. Too much water then, life-threatening lack of it now. Who though, is going to provide the ark to rescue Suleiman, his family and thousands of others currently at risk in Iraq?
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.