Surviving the ISIS Occupation: The Struggle Isn’t Over

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), a dusty camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) houses about 5,000 Iraqis, many of whom fled the Islamic State (ISIS) when the extremist group seized control of their villages in northern Iraq. In its attack on Sinjar during the summer of 2014, ISIS murdered or abducted thousands—and to this day, survivors do not know the fate of family members who disappeared in the ISIS assault. Many of the people who were able to avoid or escape the Sinjar massacre had come to Iraqi Kurdistan for safety.

During our July 2017 mission to Iraq, we talked to a family from Sinjar district. They spoke about family members who tried to escape ISIS, but literally dozens were kidnapped by the extremist group. One woman I spoke with recounted how ISIS took her for a week before setting her free. She was beaten on her legs and feet and is now in constant pain, shifting her position continually as she sat next to me on the ground and rubbed her legs as we talked. My best guess is that was 80 years old or more.

The head of the family told us about their flight from Sinjar. He didn’t dwell on the details but repeatedly emphasized that of the dozens of family members taken by ISIS, some are still missing and their fates are completely unknown. Inside their tent sat his 15-year-old daughter, who only escaped from ISIS a few weeks ago.

As Mosul was retaken from ISIS, the world’s attention and financial and human resources shifted to that city and the desperate needs of its citizens. But with the shifting focus to the dire needs in and around Mosul, any number of IDPs in camps and informal settlements across Iraq are getting less and less support.

Life in the camp is difficult for this family and others displaced by the battle against ISIS. Their circumstances have become harder as time passes and as attention has shifted to the liberation of Mosul and the needs of the people affected by the long occupation of that city. However, the dwindling services and his family’s uncertain future in this camp clearly didn’t bother this man as much as his still missing relatives. 

The attack on Sinjar came shortly after ISIS occupied the city of Mosul, a name now synonymous with imminent victory over the extremist group, as well as with the devastating effects of a prolonged siege on a civilian population. Before people started streaming out of Mosul – and even before the military offensive on the city proper had started – aid agencies and the governments based both in Baghdad and Erbil had begun planning for the possibility of one million people leaving the city and needing assistance.

For overburdened donors and overextended organizations, [their] needs don’t carry the same urgency as the needs of people fleeing Mosul’s three years of brutal siege.

As Mosul was retaken from ISIS, the world’s attention and financial and human resources shifted to that city and the desperate needs of its citizens. But with the shifting focus to the dire needs in and around Mosul, any number of IDPs in camps and informal settlements across Iraq are getting less and less support. Some of these Iraqis were originally displaced as far back as 2014. Their needs have not shrunk, and in many cases, are more profound than ever – and aid agencies recognize this. But for overburdened donors and overextended organizations, those needs don’t carry the same urgency as the needs of people fleeing Mosul’s three years of brutal siege. There’s a limited amount of money and manpower to go around, and the most vulnerable are, well, the most vulnerable.

Sitting next to me on my other side, a woman talked about how she was taken by ISIS along with her four daughters, who are all still missing. The woman eventually fled and was relocated to Europe. She says she feels safe there and is grateful for the support she receives – some of her children are in school there, and she receives help with the rent. She plans to stay in Europe. But she’s managed to come to the camp for the 15-year-old girl who just returned, to see if she is okay and offer support. It’s going to be a long-term effort for her, and for thousands of others in the same situation. The battle for Mosul has ended, and the hardest work is just beginning across Iraq.

 

Top photo: Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand on an outpost at a defensive point near Sinjar, Iraq June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

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