The view from the ground
I recently visited Iraq for the first time to see the work of the Foundation on the ground.
You can see the effects of the Fall of Mosul from the air. Sitting onboard an A320 that is only a tenth full, you execute stomach-churning circles above the city of Erbil in order to avoid the range of the ISIS forward position in Gwer, 30 km from the city. As one window is pointed at the sky, and the other wing seems to be brushing the ringroad, you cannot help but notice the strange, linear shape on the Mosul Road. From the air, one of the camps is a strange diamond shape, full of bright tents, a mass of colours in the arid brown of the surrounding desert. From above, it looks something like a vast computer character, bobbing above the motorway to the Ninevah plains.
On the ground, the IDPs are less visible. There are 1.7 million of them still resident in Kurdistan, and the UN estimates there are 8 million Iraqis requiring humanitarian assistance. But in the city, you only notice them as the people rushing out at traffic lights to sell you items or wash your windows, or sitting behind makeshift stalls on the pavement, trying to scratch a living.
To find them, you need to look for the camps. And even these have changed since last year. They are, for one thing, no longer ‘camps.’ The word ‘camp’ sounds temporary; these are now known as ‘centres’. To get into one of these centres, you must pass the gate and the young men staffing it who aggressively ask you your business. Only after frantic gesturing towards the parish priest are you allowed in. There has been a sea-change here. Gone are the makeshift tents of the first few months: the Mar Elias centre is now rows of small portacabins surrounding a volleyball court. There are two containers, their sides cut away and replaced by glass to form a library. There is a stack of portacabins, providing basic lessons for the youngest children. And there are cameras everywhere to provide security. Gone is the sense of desperation that characterised the first few months: the feeling here is one of permanence.
But gone also is hope. No-one we spoke to, from officials, NGOs and the people themselves, felt that they would be able to return home. Most are planning to leave for other countries. Some sit, still traumatised by last year’s flight, unable to face the future. The young people refuse to go to the state school: for them, what is the point of an education in a country that has failed them? They want to leave too.
The catastrophe that began a year ago today has not gone away. It has shifted into a dangerous state of resignation. Millions remain dispossessed, hundreds of thousands of children have had their education destroyed, people still feel fear. And they feel alone. They expect to be forgotten.
We want our prayers last week and in the continuing actions of the Foundation, to prove to them that we will not forget them. That they have reason for hope. That we recognise their suffering.