The war in Iraq : "I survived Saddam’s chemical attacks in 1988, but I never imagined a crisis like the one facing Iraq today"

The crisis in northern Iraq is fast, brutal and leaves a lot of suffering. Aram Shakaram, Iraq-coordinator of Save the children, describes, what he sees traveling in the North of his troubled country. An eyewitness report.

Iraqi women stand in line for relief. Every little space in the kurdish cities in Iraq are needed for refugees now.
Iraqi women stand in line for relief. Every little space in the kurdish cities in Iraq are needed for refugees now.Foto: Save the children

The Mar Yousef church in Erbilin northern Iraqis packed with people lying on thin mats and blankets or straight on the hardwood floor.

 Mothers cradle crying babies, children look forlornly across the sweltering room to the world outside, knowing too well that this isn’t a summer holiday, while their parents try desperately to work out their next move.

 Most here are seeking whatever help they can get, having fled the fighting further west as it was upon them, fortunate to escape with their lives let alone any supplies or possessions.

But these are the lucky ones. They fled towns like Qaraqosh – the scene of bloody violence, now under the control of armed groups – in cars, driving to the Kurdish capital.

 Outside the city boundaries there are still hundreds and hundreds of people waiting along the road, many of whom travelled by foot, desperately hoping to be let in. 

 Every abandoned building or unused shelter I see seems to be housing people who have fled the fighting.

 Some are waiting to get into Erbil, others are in transit to other parts of the country.

 Next to an abandoned building on the main road into town, a pregnant mother about to give birth sits nervously with her husband, who feels decidedly helpless. The mother tells us she could feel her baby’s heartbeat getting weaker and weaker.

 Nearby, a father who had a stroke, has diabetes and high blood pressure says all reasons for optimism are gone.

 The tension is palpable and the devastation everywhere.

"I fear for my nation's future"

 I’m an Iraqi national who has been working with Save the Children here for 17 years. I was displaced too back in 1988 after fleeing and surviving a chemical attack on my town, Halabja. But in all my time I could never have imagined a crisis like this – so many people fleeing so suddenly, such terror in people’s eyes.

 I fear for my nation’s future, and for communities like the Yazidis, many of whom have only just been freed from Mount Sinjar after their ethnic stronghold of Sinjar fell. Now some of them are fleeing into Syria.

Dozens of children died on that mountain from dehydration, a most horrible and preventable way to go. 

The Yazidi are victims of a severe crisis

Just days ago a teary eyed Yazidi politician told parliament how her people were being slaughtered, and that their ancient minority religion, which derives from Zoroastrianism, was “being wiped off the face of the earth”. Women were being enslaved as “war booty”, she said.

Aram Shakaram is deputy director of Save the Children in Iraq. Right now he is traveling in the north of Iraq.
Aram Shakaram is deputy director of Save the Children in Iraq. Right now he is traveling in the north of Iraq.Foto: Save the children

 Religious and ethnic minorities like the Yazidis are the latest victims in this rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Iraq, which has seen more than 1.2 million people – more than half of them children – displaced in just over two months. That’s a rate of about 20,000 per day.

This is on top of the 230,000 Syrians who have fled to Iraqbecause of the war across the border.

"In summer children should be playing in the streets"

And it’s all happening in the middle of summer, when Iraqi children should be playing in the streets, kicking soccer balls and hanging out with their friends. Families should be holidaying in towns like picturesque Shaqlawa, known for its cool summer climate, lush gardens and hot springs.

Instead Shaqlawa is among a number of host communities for people fleeing the violence. Families who once holidayed there are back again, this time seeking refuge and relying on aid agencies like Save the Children.

The children’s agency has already reached more than 100,000 displaced Iraqis this year, including 14,000 in the past week alone. Our workers have handed out water, sleeping kits and hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes.

But the level of needs is growing rapidly, pushing the crisis to breaking point.

"The speed of events was impossible to predict"

The sheer speed at which events unfolded was impossible to predict, meaning that many agencies are already running low or have run out of pre-positioned aid stocks.

Several camps scattered along the border of Kurdistanare also poorly resourced. Some have become the frontline of fighting and have emptied as a result, while others have only just gained access to clean, running water, basic health services and security.

These are problems that can only be fixed with more funding and resources, and now is the time to respond.

Not only are the displaced battling to survive each day, they don’t know how long they can stay wherever they are, if they will need to flee again or if their lives will ever return to normal.

When and how this ends, nobody knows. What we do know is that humanitarian aid is desperately needed to keep people alive.

The road ahead is long and the international community needs to step up now to save Iraq before it falls beyond repair.

The author is Save the Children’s Director of Program Development and Quality in Iraq.