Suleimani, Iraq, 24 July 2014
Children and teenagers sat in the back of pick-up trucks, amidst bundles of clothing and household items. Parents, holding babies, looked worried and tired. Other families sat on blankets in temporary shelters out of the hot sun, waiting for their papers to be processed or for a person to come to the checkpoint to sponsor them to enter the area of Iraq by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). They had all fled they homes because of ISIS’ threats and takeover of their communities.
We were at the first checkpoint for those leaving Mosul to enter the Erbil Governorates. Though only about 20 km east of ISIS controlled territory, the people coming through were now in a relatively safe area protected by the Peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers).
“It is dangerous in Mosul. The Iraqi government is randomly bombing civilian areas and civilians are killed or injured. We civilians are the victims–in the middle between the Iraqi government and ISIS fighters,” one of the men fleeing Mosul told us. “One of the main problems we have there is that we have little services. The hospitals have little medicines or anesthesia for doing surgeries. The only benefit of having ISIS there is that there are no more checkpoints inside the city. ISIS took down all the barriers separating neighborhoods.”
A student from Mosul, traveling to Erbil to take his final national examinations told us, “ISIS is present where I live, but is not harming the people. There is no fighting going on.” He planned to return to Mosul tomorrow.
On Friday 19 July, ISIS gave Christians in Mosul an ultimatum that by noon Saturday they must convert to Islam, pay a fine of about $470 per person, or face “death by the Sword.” They were to leave with only the clothes they were wearing. CNN reported that 52 Christian families left Mosul early Saturday morning and headed either for nearby Christian villages, or in the KRG governorates of Duhok or Erbil. Christian leaders, we contacted, told us that the Bishop of the Catholic Churches of Mosul and churches in the KRG are sponsoring these families.
Not as prominent in the news, however, was that other minority religious groups in Mosul, such as the Shabak, Yesidis, Turkmen and other Shia Muslims were also being threatened by ISIS and were now coming into the KRG areas. I was reminded of this today when one of the Peshmerga crossing guards explained to us that the large bus-loads of people coming through the checkpoint were mostly Shia Muslim Turkmen from Tal Afar. From here, they would be driven to Suleimani, then to Baghdad and Shia areas in southern Iraq.
Today we witnessed one more tragedy that the people of Iraq are enduring. I can only imagine the heartbreak and fear each new wave of people must feel as they are wrenched from their homes, leaving their hopes and dreams, and what little stability they had behind. Yet, in the midst of this, there are acts of compassion. I watched members of a family lovingly help their elderly grandfather hobble to their car once they were ready to leave. Checkpoint crossing guards asked the students, since they are young and healthy to wait for the families, with women and children, to cross. And people in other parts of the country, also knowing the pain of war, are helping them resettle.
Peggy Faw Gish