Iraq's people have suffered long enough

Iraq's people have suffered long enough
Comment: Iraq is a shattered country, and aid agencies are swamped by the millions of civilians forced from their homes by war, says Alexandra Lort Phillips.
3 min read
The fall of Saddam is a hollow freedom for many [AFP]

It is now difficult to view Iraq as a single entity. Charities and aid agencies provide basic services and civilians flee almost certain death as armed groups battle each other for control of territory.

Maps are updated every few weeks to indicate which forces control which regions and towns.

But maps and reports do not portray the reality of daily life and the traumas faced by so many Iraqis who have fled the fighting - physical violence, hardship, psychological distress, destitution and discrimination.

This is not to say things were going well before the rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, IS. Iraq has required international aid since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Failed efforts at democracy have led to large sections of the population becoming effectively marginalized. These conditions have laid the ground for the current disaster.

Ruth James, the head of mission for the Czech NGO People in Need, is working with a team in Nineveh province in north west Iraq, which has seen some of the largest numbers of Iraq's internal refugees people.

People in Need has been working in Iraq for more than 10 years but today James highlights some of the main challenges they are facing.

Nineveh was taken by the IS group last year, and then retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga forces over the last four months. During IS's occupation all the Kurds and half the Arab population left the area, but most have now returned.

     Farmers have missed the agricultural season and 100 percent of them are now reliant on food handouts.

Houses, schools, clinics, water systems and electricity facilities have been destroyed in battle zones. Farmers have missed the agricultural season and all are now reliant on food handouts from the World Food Programme.

Entire villages have been flattened, and the rubble cannot be cleared due to unexploded bombs. Peshmerga forces are poorly trained and are often killed trying to clear them. Children have also been killed by mines left behind by IS.

James says the next confrontation, the battle to retake the city of Mosul from the IS, will create millions of refugees as civilians flee the fighting.

"Up to two million civilians will be displaced," she says. "No one knows where they will go, and no one has money to help them.

"There is extreme fatigue of humanitarian fundraising for Iraq. More than 60 percent of projects are running out of or have run out of funding. Entire camps now have no money to fix water systems or maintain latrines."

James says that Kurdish populations have supported fleeing civilians Kurds in many ways. However, Arab minority populations continue to suffer, adding to previous levels of poverty caused by poor levels of public services and their disadvantaged status in the region.

Arab populations are being discriminated against because it was assumed they were sympathetic to IS.

James said that there was not enough humanitarian aid to cope with the current situation, let alone any future refugees from Mosul.

"Traumatised Yazidis and Christians are scared of returning to their villages. No Yazidi children can attend school because of classes being held in Arabic and Kurdish. Ethnic tensions are also rising which could lead to a backlash," she said.

If it breaks out ethnic conflict is likely to hurt the most vulnerable, especially minorities already separated from their social support networks.

The fall of Baghdad and Saddam's regime on 9 April, 2003, was presented to the world as a symbolic start of freedom for a country that had suffered under a savage dictator.

For those who have lost everything through war, or those returning home to devastation, it is nothing more than a hollow claim.