Director of Durant Fellowship Visits Refugees in Iraq
Dr. Larry Ronan, Director of the Durant Fellowship for Refugee Medicine traveled to Iraq to assess the needs of refugees and displaced communities
Since October 17, 2016, when the assault began on ISIL in Mosul, more than one million civilians have been put at risk to be killed or maimed in the mayhem. When I visited, more than eighty-three thousand people already have fled that city and more are escaping every day. Scattered in camps throughout Erbil, Dahuk and Kirkuk, this diaspora joins the 1.8 million displaced Iraqis and 250,000 Syrian refugees who fled the ISIL controlled areas in 2014.
I visited a new camp called Hasansham U3 set up to accommodate the recent internally-displaced people (IDP) from Mosul. Located about 20 miles from the city, Hasansham is one of three camps in this area and 12,000 people live there. People flee Mosul by foot or car carrying only essentials - some clothes, food, a bag full of personal items. They are met at the front lines by Peshmerga, the fighting forces of Kurdistan, who herd them into busses. After a security check, the IDP's are brought to a camp, assigned standard issue United Nations tents, and given food, clothing, and blankets. They receive hot meals for two days but only dry food rations. On the day I visited, volunteers were handing out baby cribs.
Food, fresh water, clean toilet and shower facilities, and shelter are stretched dangerously thin. It is winter with temperatures in the low 30's so coats, gas heaters, and blankets are in high demand and low supply. There is no electricity or plumbing. I walked through the camp with the director from the Barzani Charitable Foundation, a good man, who stops along the way for each person who appeals to him for help - blankets, more food, a different tent area - and quietly and respectfully addresses their needs. Each person is given his time and respect.
The camp director tells me that mental health needs are a priority. These are a terribly traumatized people who have been subjected to horrific acts. They witnessed neighbors and loved ones undergoing the unspeakable: beheading of children, torture then crucifixion, and mass murder. Whole villages were enslaved. In Mosul, they lived under a sociopathic, brutal regime with control over every facet of daily life: work, worship, dress, and education. The camp director relayed the story of watching women enter the camp and immediately throw off the head scarves imposed by ISIL. He also told the story of a young boy who on being asked what he wanted in life replied, " An Islamic State." ISIL has brainwashed the youngest.
There is a feeling in the camp that people are happy to be here. One can see this reflected in faces and body language. While there are no toys, bikes, or playgrounds, the kids play tag, card games, and hide and seek. The adults cluster to gossip or work on getting supplies.
However, basic health services and medicines are still in critically short supply. Two doctors from the Ministry of Health work in a tiny, cramped trailer serving dozens of people. One doctor looks up to me surrounded by beseeching patients and simply says, “This is chaos." The pharmacy (a small window in the trailer) is running out of medicine. Many people with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease will go without medications. Prenatal and post-delivery care are unavailable.
A person who becomes seriously ill gets put into an ambulance or truck and sent to the Erbil emergency room 55 miles away. Pregnant women are brought to the overcrowded public maternity hospital to deliver their babies and sent back to the camp the next day. The Erbil hospitals are on the verge of collapse from the added health care needs of the IDP and wounded soldiers. This camp is a set up for a health disaster - influenza, cholera, polio, and tuberculosis.
The IDPs in Hasansham, however, are safe. The assault on Mosul has just begun and is far from over. The one million civilians living in Mosul are not safe. Used by ISIL as human shields, they risk being murdered outright, death by snipers and booby traps, and indiscriminant bombing. Staying put may not be an option. They will likely need to flee as the fighting intensifies.
Who will protect them? How will they escape? Where will they go? Who will take care of them?