Traumatised by ISIL, Yazidis seek help – Al Jazeera

Read here. Photo by Jodi Hilton. Haji Umar, a former Iraqi army sergeant and a member of the Yazidi religious minority, lay down on the scorching sand. He picked up his phone and with a parched mouth spoke to his 19-year-old daughter Wanza.

The suffering around him had become too much. He told Wanza goodbye, hung up the phone and raised his gun to his head.

A month later, Wanza lies grief-stricken in a hospital bed. Her eyes search the face of Dr Haitham Abdalrazak, the hospital psychiatrist standing next to her, but her body remains rigid.

Her family fled their village near Mount Sinjar at the beginning of August with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s advance into the region.

After his eight children were delivered to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, Wanza’s father Umar went back to Mount Sinjar to try and fend off ISIL.

“He was good hearted but hurried in making decisions,” says Ilyas Alman, Umar’s younger brother and Wanza’s uncle. He wipes his tears with an orange scarf. “He couldn’t stand the pain of the people around him.”

Umar was buried where he died, near Mount Sinjar, but his funeral took place in the crowded school where the family now lives.

In August, ISIL fighters carried out the massacre of hundreds of Yazidis with the belief that Yazidis worship the devil. Up to 2,500 mainly women and children were abducted, with tens of thousands fleeing the area, according to a UN report.

Since the crisis, cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression like Wanza’s have ripped through the Yazidi community.

Her family is part of around 300,000 displaced Yazidis living in the Kurdistan region, many of whom are now sheltering in camps, abandoned buildings and schools.

It’s mid-morning in the hospital and patients crowd the narrow corridors outside Dr Abdalrazak’s office in Zakho General Hospital.

He estimates that over 70 percent of Yazidi IDPs in Zakho, a small city in Dohuk Province near the Turkish border, are suffering from trauma.

Abdalrazak has a kind, serious expression. He says about 20 percent of his patients have considered suicide and about five percent have attempted it.

“When you feel that your whole people are targeted, when they [ISIL] want to kill all of your people, you feel afraid. You don’t feel safe any more,” he says.

Abdalrazak looks over Wanza once again, bending her forearm at the elbow to test her responses before letting the arm drop back to her side.

Twenty-one-year-old Nahla Haji is the next patient. She sits hunched over a chair in Abdalrazak’s office, eyes peering out from behind a thin pale scarf. Yesterday she was in the emergency room suffering from flashbacks.

“I was so nervous and agitated. It is the second time I felt like this,” she says. “All my thoughts are about missing friends and villages taken by ISIL. We try to cope but even at night when we sleep we see many things in our dreams.”

Amr Yousif is her cousin by marriage and accompanies her today. He still has vivid memories of ISIL fighters discarding his cousin’s bullet-ridden body just before they left town. His cousin had refused to convert to Islam.

Nahla and Yousif live in a crowded and dirty school building where fights between families break out regularly.

“Thank God for our living situation,” Yousif says, chuckling ironically.

Both Wanza and Nahla will need therapy and to learn anti-anxiety techniques to face their memories gradually, according to Abdalrazak.

Wanza’s family can’t afford regular visits to the hospital and is fearful of a repeat attack.

Abdalrazak gives Nahla a prescription for anti-depressants but not long after she returns, the pharmacy runs out of free medication. Abdalrazak prescribes another, less effective drug.

Dr Nazar Amin, a consultant psychiatrist working in Sulaymaniyah, says the concept of psychotherapy didn’t exist in Iraq until recently. Years ago, patients would visit his clinic in Erbil after sunset to avoid being seen.

“Now people are realising what trauma is and what mental health is. The stigma is fading,” Amin says.

Even though there is now more awareness about mental illness, Amin says there still is not enough expertise to deal with this mass trauma.

“We can’t import [psychiatrists],” he says. “They must have the language and the familiarity with the culture.”

Years of war have not only increased cases of trauma in Iraq, but have also negatively impacted the country’s health infrastructure.

Although health spending in Iraq has been rising, spending on health and other development areas last year was still “insufficient” compared to needs, according to the UN Joint Analysis Policy Unit.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders warns that PTSD, anxiety and depression are now also affecting displaced children.

The organisation has been offering psychological support to displaced people in their Dohuk mobile clinics since August, but do not have any psychiatrists working with them in the area.

Not long ago a young woman who had escaped Sinjar, entered Abdalrazak’s clinic with her fiance. She told Abdalrazak she didn’t know where her family had ended up after ISIL attacked her town in early August, and that her younger sister had been kidnapped by the group.

She couldn’t stand not knowing what had happened to them and wanted to kill herself. She was suffering from PTSD, but her fiance helped her.

“When she felt stressed or upset he would bring his mobile phone and make her listen to beautiful songs, love songs. He told her it would all be OK and he would say, ‘I will marry you very soon,'” Abdalrazak says.

She regularly visited Abdalrazak, who prescribed anti-depressants.

“I saw her for a couple of weeks and she became better and better, and they decided to run away to Turkey. Last week they came to my clinic and said thank you,” Abdalrazak says.

The couple left in mid-September and he hasn’t heard from them since.

At the hospital entrance large glass doors bathe the reception with light. A group of four young psychologists in colourful hijabs linger as patients filter through the swinging doors.

Outside the hospital, the mountains that line the Iraq-Turkey border are lit up with the midday sun. Inside, Nahla is finally starting to talk.

Amid stories of lost loved ones and trampled villages, Abdalrazak also sees glimmers of hope, like the couple’s love story.

Abdalrazak and Amin will continue to treat patients like Wanza and Nahla with the resources they have, but say it could also be the strong sense of community among the Yazidis that finally brings them through the trauma of war.

An eerie calm as Iraqi Christians ponder their future – Huffington Post

Read here. Photo by Jodi Hilton. ALQOSH, Iraq (RNS) Basima al-Safar retouches a picture of Jesus on an easel outside her house overlooking the flat Nineveh plains, 30 miles north of Mosul.

The murals she paints tell the story of her people, Christians in Iraq. But with Islamic State militants nearby, she is worried that life in Alqosh and towns like it could soon come to an end.

The Assyrian Christian town of around 6,000 people sits on a hill below the seventh-century Rabban Hormizd Monastery, temporarily closed because of the security situation. Residents of Alqosh fled this summer ahead of Islamic State militants. Around 70 percent of the town’s residents have since returned. Still, a sense of unease hangs in the air.

Below the monastery in the boarded up bazaar a lone shopkeeper waits for customers. At the edge of town local Christian fighters staff lookout posts, checking for danger. With Islamic State fighters just 10 miles away, these men and most residents of the town are scared that they may have to flee again.

In August, the Christian town of Qaraqosh, 18 miles east of Mosul, was overrun, along with neighboring villages, home to Iraqi Christian communities for centuries. Islamic State forces came close but never entered Alqosh.

Al-Safar, who has been painting murals of Christian life for 34 years, was born in Alqosh and shares her brightly painted home with her cousin and nephew. Earlier this summer, like many of the town’s residents, she fled to Dohuk, a Kurdish city on the north of Iraq.

“When I returned Alqosh was like a ghost town,” she said.

She began decorating her house with religious murals after the death of her mother three years ago. But now she looks at her depictions of biblical figures, potted plants, feasts and angels and wonders if she will ever paint again.

Before 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. These days, about 400,000 remain. In July, Christians fled Mosul in droves after Islamic State militants gave them an ultimatum to convert, pay a tax or be killed.

Mrayma and Athra Mansour, two Christian brothers, are trying to adjust to the new circumstances.

Athra Mansour used to teach the Syriac language to children in neighbouring Tel Isqof.

“Tel Isqof is empty now,” he explained, sipping a small cup of coffee.

Mrayma Mansour, who used to work as a local disc jockey and has since taken up arms as part of a fledgling Christian militia, said he wants international protection for his people, in the form of a safe zone, weapons and training.

“If this doesn’t happen I will get my passport, family and try to go to another country because it won’t be safe,” he said.
Thaer Saeed echoes the frustration.

“No one is working here,” he said, while playing with his three grandchildren. “I drive a taxi from Baghdad to Alqosh and I can’t work because it’s too dangerous and there are no customers.”

At 4:30, the St. George Church bells chime. A few women and children gather for the service led by Deacon Salim Qoda. Most of the aisles are empty. Prayers are read in the ancient Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic believed to have been spoken by Jesus.

Wadhah Sabih, another deacon from the town, is proud of the Assyrian history of his town. The people of Alqosh have defended themselves in the face of many would-be invaders throughout the centuries, he said, but now “we are living cautiously; every family is ready to flee.”

Back in her home, al-Safar smokes a cigarette and reflects.

“I will paint the Christians as homeless people, emigrating with bags,” she said. “I will paint the truth.”

UK brings guns and training to the peshmerga – DW

Read here. Photos by Sebastian Meyer.

At the bottom of an arid valley in Iraqi Kurdistan, bullets crack as they fly toward their targets, sending clouds of dust into the air. Overseen by UK soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, Kurdish peshmerga fighters are carrying out drills on new heavy machine guns in a secret location.

The UK has given 40 heavy machine guns and almost half a million rounds of ammunition, as well as non-lethal equipment such as body armour and helmets, to help the Kurds counter attacks by the IS militants.

Weapons and training are badly needed. Kurdish officials complain of being “outgunned” by IS fighters, who pillaged US weapons left behind as the Iraqi army retreated this summer.

Air strikes have helped, but militants continue to launch offensives against the peshmerga, while also besieging the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, proving that they remain a potent danger.

Major Mark of the Yorkshire Regiment – the only British soldier allowed to be identified for security reasons – says that the new gun is more sophisticated than other weapons employed in the region. Combined with weapons and training from other countries, the machine guns will have “a tide turning effect” against IS, he says.

Limited help

There is a thud, and the pile of spent bullet casings grows as men wait for their turn to fire. A young peshmerga fighter struggles to load the gun while one of the UK soldiers shouts orders at him through a Kurdish translator.

The peshmerga will have to learn fast

A different fighter, Zyad is 24 and a new recruit from Sinjar. His family now live in a camp in the northern city of Dohuk; they are part of the Yazidi minority and fled IS massacres in August.

Zyad says the attack on his home town, which he calls “a catastrophe,” convinced him to join the peshmerga. “In Sinjar we need all the help and protection we can get,” he explains, adding that he would like to see British and American troops fighting beside the peshmerga.

Despite RAF planes dropping bombs on IS targets in Iraq since late September, the UK has said it won’t deploy ground troops, preferring instead to focus on supplying weapons and training the peshmerga forces.

Some of the British trainers are veterans of the Iraq war, but they are keen to point out that their role here is very different this time around.

The Major describes the Kurds’ fight against IS as one of survival, against a “common enemy.” In another mark of solidarity, one UK soldier has a Union Jack flag sewn to the breast of his uniform, just above the flag of the Kurdistan region; a bright yellow sun with a white, red and green backing.

Changing tactics

The peshmerga, who had little recent battle experience before IS swept into Iraq, must now contend with the group shifting tactics. Peshmerga forces are increasingly facing surprise ambush attacks and finding hidden explosives.

Medical staff at one hospital in the Kurdish capital said that injuries due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the biggest problem faced by the peshmerga.

Contractors hired by the British Ministry of Defence have now been brought in to teach the peshmerga how to defuse IEDs.

Earlier this week IS relaunched offensives targeting multiple Kurdish border posts. Kurdish media reported on Monday that 15 Kurdish fighters were killed in a truck bombing near Mosul dam.

On a recent visit to the emergency hospital in Erbil, DW met Sgt Salah Muhammed, who was being treated for a sniper bullet wound to the abdomen. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, fellow fighter Hamid Abdullah stood beside him, still in his fatigues.

“We need everything,” said Hamid, “body armour, weapons. We just have old Chinese weapons and IS have US weapons.”

Back in the valley with the trainees, Major Mark is wrapping up today’s activities. He says that when the training is finished and the weapons are deployed, they will be best used as anti-sniper weapons, targeting vehicles or buildings, where attackers may lay in wait.


Born into exile, with a new chance at life – Vocativ

A maternity clinic in Iraq gives Syrian refugees a small reason to hope. Photos by Jodi Hilton. Read here.

DOHUK, IRAQ—Inside the delivery room of a makeshift clinic, a young woman in labor is moaning with pain as her relatives watch, their faces
 contorted with concern. The air smells like disinfectant, and Abla
 Ali, 29, a Syrian midwife, scurries in and out, fetching 
needles and an IV drip.

Outside, a long line of women wait patiently for their turn. Many are pregnant, and their eyes show their exhaustion.

Here in the Kurdish part of Iraq, some 200,000 Syrian refugees have
 crossed the border over the past three years because of Syria’s
 civil war. More recently, with the rise of the Islamic State, a 
jihadi group commonly known as ISIS, another 850,000 people have 
been displaced throughout the Kurdish parts of Iraq.

The newcomers have overwhelmed local hospitals. So several
 months ago, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) opened
 this maternity clinic at Domiz Camp, a dusty desert tent city that’s home to 56,000 Syrian refugees, in hopes of easing the burden.

Complex births, such as cesarean sections, are still referred to 
the hospital in Dohuk, a town roughly 6 miles away. But many refugees say 
the cost of getting to the hospital and language barriers—the majority of the Syrians speak a different dialect of Kurdish than their Iraqi counterparts—are strong deterrents. “Some women told me
 they would prefer to die in their tents rather than go to the [local]
 hospital,” Ali says.

Now many women will come to this clinic to give birth, and Ali and her fellow midwives will be here to help them. Like many of her patients, Ali is a refugee. She escaped the
 fighting in Damascus and came to Iraq to start a new life.

It hasn’t been easy. At first, she was making house calls and helping women give birth in crowded tents. Her hardest delivery occurred 18 months ago, when
 her sister Vian went into labor in Dohuk. Despite Ali’s best efforts, the child died.

On this day, however, there is no cause for mourning. Back in the delivery room, the woman has stopped moaning. Her child is
 born, her family is all smiles and Ali moves on to the next woman waiting in line outside.

Iraqi Christian village takes the fight to IS – DW

While the world’s focus is on Kobani, “Islamic State” fighters are continuing their campaign against minorities in Iraq. In the ancient village of Al Qosh, a group of poorly armed Christians are trying to stop them. Read here.

Photo by Jodi Hilton

Mrayma Mansour, who leads the night patrol of Assyrian Christian fighters in the town of Al Qosh, looks jumpy. He has a dagger tucked into the waist band of his fatigues and his large green eyes are bloodshot.

Around him sit his men, holding hand-me-down weapons and drinking sugary tea. The talk is of betrayal. When the Kurdish peshmerga forces retreated from the “Islamic State” (IS) advance on Christian towns at the beginning of August, Mrayma’s and his men stayed on, not knowing if Al Qosh would be attacked. IS forces were just a few kilometers south. Almost all the residents fled, fearing the worst. “We had 70-80 men who stayed and stood watch on the mountain,” he said. “They were from different local parties, fighters, men with guns. We were scared thieves would come.”

Al Qosh, an Assyrian Christian town of around 6,000 people, overlooks the flat Ninawa plains from its hillside perch. Families are now cautiously returning and peshmerga fighters are pushing back again on the front line, just 15 kilometers away. A lone-shopkeeper mans a corner store in the boarded up bazaar. The afternoon tolling of the church bells and the passing of an occasional vehicle punctuate the silence. The 7th century Rabban Hormizd monastery built in the cliffs overlooking the town is closed due to the security situation.

Peshmerga pullout

An air of unease still cloaks the town. A few peshmerga checkpoints dot the road between here and the front line just outside the town of Tel Isqof. Mrayma saw the peshmerga retreating from his lookout. “I saw cars and tanks withdrawing from Tel Isqof to Dohuk,” he says, “when we saw this we told our families to go because it’s not safe.”

Now the Christian fighters, who dress in camouflage and drive rusted-out vehicles, are determined to protect their beloved town, but they know they are no match for the IS forces. Instead they reassure residents and stay alert for signs of the peshmerga retreating. “If I see them withdrawing I know [IS] is coming so it is a good alarm,” he says, adding, “If they leave us and go what can we do? [IS] will kill us without weapons.”

Hemin Hawrami, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s foreign relations office, said that the peshmerga forces were “outgunned” by IS. There are around 100 fighters with the Assyrian Democratic Movement, and around 2,000 volunteers ready to fight, as well as forces aligned to different Christian parties.

Arms are bought privately or come from the Assyrian Democratic Movement and their supporters, say leaders.

In such a small community, rumors travel fast. Thaer is Mrayma’s father-in-law. Over a lunch of cracked wheat in their airy home, he says “yesterday people were shouting, telling us to leave our homes, but that was just a rumor.” He looks down. “Nobody knows why ISIS didn’t come here, maybe it is because we are in the mountains. But we are still scared, at any time we could be attacked.”

A village vs. IS

A deacon with the local church of Saint George, Wadhah Sabih, leans over and whispers to DW as prayers are recited in the ancient Syriac language. “We’ve defended Al Qosh many times against different enemies over centuries. But right now it’s impossible to defend ourselves,” he continues in hushed tones. “The army can’t stand before IS – so how can a small village? IS sold themselves to the devil.”

Christians are angry about being pushed from their ancient heartlands – August 10 this year was the first Sunday in centuries that the church bells of Saint George in Al Qosh didn’t ring, Wadhah tells DW.

Traditions and rites are under threat

Before 2003 it was estimated that there was 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, now there are around 400,000 left, many with plans to leave. Caught between Kurdish and Arab Iraq , the Ninawa plains has long been fought over, but when IS forces swept into control Mosul, ethnic and religious minorities say they felt terrified.

After massacres and the widespread displacement of the Yazidis religious minority, a new Yazidi fighting force was set up for self-protection around Sinjar.

“In Sinjar the [Yazidi] people don’t trust strange men, Kurd or Arab, to protect them – they want a share in protecting themselves. We don’t want to split Iraq, we just want to be in charge of our own place,” says Yaqoob Yaqo, an Assyrian Democratic Movement member of the Kurdish Regional parliament.

Taking charge

Christian politicians say other minorities in the Ninawa plains should also be able to protect themselves, including Shabaks and Yazidis. But it is unlikely that divergent militia groups will be able to defeat the IS fighters. Yaqoob knows that to have any fighting chance, they need backup.

The fighters have so far requested support; weapons, training and tactical coordination from Baghdad and Erbil. They have also called for international protection, in the form of a safe zone.

Mrayma echoes the views of many when he says that if international support is not given to his people, “I will get my passport, family and try to go to another country because it won’t be safe here.”

On a rocky bern at the edge of the town, Assyrian fighters continue to vigilantly man the defence as evening falls. A young fighter stares out at the flat burnt plains below him. Back in the town the church bells are tolling again. On narrow streets in the old heart of Al Qosh, a baby is being taken to be baptized. The people here have lost trust in their protectors; but they don’t yet know who in this conflict they can depend on.