A year ago, I visited the refugee camps in the regions of Erbil and Nohadra (Duhok) when over 600,000 people had fled the barbaric and ruthless terrorist organization that is IS. About 200,000 of these were my own countrymen. My blood. My people. They were Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, and they were the indigenous people of Iraq. Just a few months earlier, I had visited the villages and towns in the Nineveh Plains. But it was when I visited Baghdede (which is the name I prefer to use when referring to Qarakosh) that I thought: “I have found the pearl among the jewels”.
The town felt like the capital city of my heart. It was the place which was most inhabited by my people throughout Iraq. It was the place which, apart from the population, had everything needed to become the capital for the future province. Here, Assyrian was spoken on the streets. Here, I heard the sound of church bells ringing . Here, I saw the school children cheerfully rushing out of school in their uniforms. Here, I felt at home. I was one among 50,000 of my compatriots in our ancestral historic land. I was united with my brothers and sisters, with my roots, with my true self.
These were my thoughts as recently as April 2014.
But now, I found myself in the middle of misery. With a lump in my throat I was faced with a heart wrenching, mournful sight. The deplorable conditions which the people were forced to live under made me feel sick. To see innocent children cry from hunger, old women sing lamentations about their fate, and the villages they called home in a stench that cannot even be described, would make any one who witnessed it burst into tears. It is not a dignified life they live, and it is also a disgrace to the world that this is taking place in the 21st century.
I stayed with them. I lived with them. I suffered with them. I was no better than them. I was and remain one of them. These were the people who lit up Baghdede, among other places. These were the people who had filled me with joy and harmony.
An image that is etched in my mind is Inas’ sad and helpless blue and tearful eyes.
I quickly embraced little Inas and gave her the warmth and love that all scared children are entitled to. She hugged me back, as hard as she could. I could feel her deep grief and fear, and I could no longer hold back my tears.
The struggle continued when I was back in Sweden. The meeting with Inas gave me the strength and motivation I need to keep fighting with ADFA, and demand action from the nations of our world. Our people have fought and suffered to be heard. How can we allow this to continue? What kind of a sick and indifferent world do we live in?
It has now almost been a year and a half since the terrorist group IS conquered Mosul and hell broke loose in Iraq. It feels strange to say it, but when exposed to the injustices, as we are daily you undergo a mental change. When you hear, see, feel and are constantly updated on the state of the atrocities in your home country you become numb. It builds up a kind of shell, a protective aura that insulates you from any anxious feelings or thoughts. It simply becomes part of one’s life. All the anxiety and all the emotions transform into a fighting spirit and an incredible strength.
From the freedom and security here in the West world, we only hear and read about the refugee crisis. How young children drown in the sea in a desperate attempt to put the misery behind them and start a new life in dignity in the freedom of Europe. I have been exposed to this so much that is does not even faze me anymore.
The past six months, in other words, one year after the IS invasion, has been the same. I have heard and seen, but it does not torment me in the same way anymore. Or so I thought until yesterday when, from my friend and ADFA colleague, Athra, in the town of Alqosh, I received news so tragic and heartbreaking they made the hairs on my neck stand up. My shell had cracked. My heart was bleeding. My soul was shivering.
I sat completely still and felt the anguish grip my heart as if it would tear it out.
I felt my heart pounding with blows that echoed in my body, which felt completely weightless. I asked my friend to immediately make calls to acquaintances from Baghdede to obtain more information, which he did.
The refugees who died in the boat had fled IS twice, the first time was when Baghdede was under attack between June 25th and 26th 2014 and almost the entire city’s residents fled in fear to avoid falling into the hands of terrorists.
A small part of the city’s young men armed themselves, together with priests and deacons of the church, and refused to leave the city. It turned out that people could return and that it was only the Arab tribes who ended up in a military battle against the Kurdish Peshmerga. Most of Baghdede’s population returned, but the stay did not last long when the IS one month later gave the indigenous people of Iraq an ultimatum: pay jizya (a form of tax which non-Muslims must pay), convert to Islam, or die. The result was that the entire Nineveh Plain was emptied of its Assyrian population, with the exception of Alqosh and Sharafiya where young, brave men decided to defend their honor and their 7,000-year-old native land.
Two Assyrian families of ten people ended up among many others in the refugee camps in Erbil. They were just like 10-year-old Inas tired of living as depleted refugees in their own country and decided to look for safety and freedom on the other side of the world, and fled to Turkey. They lived there for a whole year and sought refugee status with the UN, but as anticipated and not uncommonly they received no more than a date for a meeting for further processing to which they would have had to wait several years.
The feeling of hopelessness and abandonment prompted them to take matters into their own hands and seek out traffickers to try the absolute last resort. For about $ 3,000 per person they bought 10 seats on a larger boat that was packed with other refugees and was heavily congested; the front part of the bottom floor of the boat broke and the water came rushing in, at that exact spot is where the two Assyrian families had positioned themselves on the crowded boat. Seven out of ten Assyrians were drowned, four of whom were just young children. These Assyrians paid more than $3000 each in the search of safety and dignity; sadly, they paid for it with their lives as well.
The IS continues to pose a threat to humanity. Refugees sacrifice the last of their belongings and risk their families’ lives in pursuit of safety. Some dishonest traffickers continue to make money at the expense of people’s desperation and their lives, and the entire time the outside world is standing idly by. What kind of world do we live in?
One thing is certain; the people of Baghdede have given me joy, but now they are also the source of my deepest sorrow. For them, and many others, we at A Demand For Action (ADFA) continue to fight, we will be their voice until our last breath. We will not give up until every father, mother and child can return to a Safe Zone in the Nineveh Plains.