By Romain de Vries, Head of International Emergencies, Secours Catholique
“They stopped me and my wife and children at a roadblock. Then they kept us in a cell for nine months. I was often tortured there.”
The man tells his story as if it were a nightmare. His voice is weary. His face shows no sign of hate, but its features are drawn and the eyes gleam with sadness. His look expresses all the lack of understanding of a people chased from the land they have lived in for more than 2,000 years.
“We were very lucky. They released us on payment of a ransom…and because we agreed to become Moslems.”
On seeing our amazement, they felt obliged to point out almost as an excuse: “We didn’t really become Moslems. We did so as we had no choice… You see what we mean?”
It’s 45° C in the shade. We’re in Zakho, in the north-west of Iraqi Kurdistan, not far from the Turkish and Syrian borders. Islamic State hasn’t got there… at least not yet. On a halted construction site, hundreds of Yazidis are crammed together in makeshift shelters. Some of them were only able to find shelter in the gloomy cellars of an unfinished building, living like ghosts. They all come from the town of Sinjar, which they had to flee in the summer of 2014 when faced with the deadly madness of the black-clad fanatics. They have no news of their relatives and friends, who were unable to leave in time. But everyone is aware of their fate: throat slitting for the men, and forced marriage and slavery for the women and children.
Caritas has helped these displaced people since their arrival in Zakho. In addition to merely material assistance (food, accommodation assistance, cooking and hygiene kits, vouchers, medical care), counselling is also offered, especially to children who are given specific aftercare as well as education in makeshift schools. These activities carried out in difficult conditions by Caritas members, who have often been displaced themselves, are only a minute example of the excellent work the organisation does on behalf of thousands of civilians – mainly Christians and Yazidis – wherever they might be in Iraq.
In Dohuk, just south of Zakho, the situation is equally tragic. At first glance, it looks like any peaceful town in the Middle East. Businesses are open, traffic is bustling, children are playing in the streets and the enchanting oriental light embellishes the white walls of the houses. If you take the trouble to have a closer look, the setting is markedly less romantic. Hiding everywhere in churches, schools and abandoned sites are families who have lost everything… everything except their dignity and perhaps also the hope of one day returning to their homes in the Mosul region. While this hope is partly maintained thanks to the support given by Caritas, it diminishes as news comes in of the looting and occupation of the houses these families had to leave behind. And if you ask them if they think they will see their native land again one day, they look up at the sky in nostalgic silence.
Whether in Zakho, Dohuk or elsewhere, most of these displaced people have so far been able to receive assistance from Caritas as well as from other humanitarian organisations or even local populations who, despite a degree of indifference sometimes, also know how to show kindness. But while it’s the duty of all of us to help our brothers and sisters to survive, it’s an even greater duty to enable them to live. And living doesn’t only mean eating, drinking and washing oneself. Living means being able to give a future to your children, practise your religion, coexist in peace with your neighbours and go to sleep at night without worrying too much about the following day. This is what Caritas is trying to offer men, women and children via its programmes and by raising the awareness of host communities. Nevertheless, as long as the rest of the world settles for mere cosmetic mobilisation with respect to the drama playing out in the Middle East, the daily lives of these wandering souls will primarily be tragic.