On 14 May Nina journalist Shams Al-Shakarchi attended an event organised by Tadhamun (Iraqi Women Solidarity) – a group of activists campaigning on human rights issues, justice and equality – which examined the fragmentation of Iraq’s society as the number of internally displaced Iraqis passes 3.4 million.
From left to right: Haifa Zangana, Iraqi author and activist, Dr Ferial Ahmad, consultant microbiologist, Victoria Brittain, former associate foreign editor of the Guardian and author, Joanne Baker, from Child Victims of War,
THE devastating reality of how Iraq’s population has scattered to survive the last 13 years of turmoil was made tragically clear by the speakers at Tadhamun’s event in London on May 14.
According to UN figures, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq now stands at 3.4 million since 2003.
In the last year alone, 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced – that’s 100,000 people every month who have found themselves without a home, some for the second or third time.
Iraq now has the third largest population of IDPs in the world, and as government forces begin their assault on Fallujah in what is expected to be one of the biggest battles fought against Daesh, the humanitarian crisis is set to deepen still.
“To be liberated, cities are obliterated,” Professor Mundher Al-Adhami – the first speaker of the afternoon – said of Ramadi and Fallujah, where “nobody has gone back”.
The US and UK had failed to acknowledge Iraqis’ suffering, he added, describing Iraq as a “bad story” which they “don’t want to talk about”.
Mapping the current situation, Prof Al-Adhami said the majority of IDPs are in living in some 2,700 locations across Iraq, including shanty towns, disused government buildings and mosques, with only around 400,000 of them in camps.
Yet even there, they lack sufficient access to education, food and healthcare and are vulnerable to abuse.
Recalling her experience volunteering at Baraka and Bajit Kandala camps near Dohuk, Dr Ferial Ahmad, a retired consultant, stressed that problems refugees faced were not physical alone, with women and girls in particular psychologically traumatised.
“Especially now they (the refugees) need a lot of attention,” Dr Ahmad said. “Especially the girls who are coming back from Isis having been in captivity for over a year and a half.
“I saw a family arrive, a mother with seven children and a father taken by Isis, they don’t know about him. She had been in captivity for over a year. She can’t look at people in the eyes.”
With a third of displaced children out of school, Joanne Baker, from Child Victims of War, highlighted the effects of the conflict on young Iraqis. As parents struggle to cope financially and with the overwhelming trauma and grief of losing their relatives and their homes, they in turn cannot help their children overcome the distress and upheaval, she said.
“There’s a lot of abuse now within families,” Joanne added. “This is just another outcome of war and displacement. Not because they’re bad people, but because they’ve been pushed beyond any normal human endurance.”
How the mass population shift had affected Baghdad’s once thriving and inclusive culture was the focus of Haifa Zangana’s closing talk.
The Iraqi author and co-founder of Tadhamun, described how Iraq’s social identity and communal memory had been targeted by the occupation, with systematic attacks on the Iraqi way of life.
Marketplace bombings, destruction of religious centres, installation of checkpoints and restrictions on movements in a city which “used to be accessible to all” had served to minimise daily interaction between Iraqis, gradually building a fear and mistrust among neighbours.
“Attacking systematically these gathering places has diminished the capability of meeting others,” she said.
“Baghdad for us, and for the Middle East, for Arabs, represents the continuity of human achievement and history, of pride and dignity. It is the beating heart of Iraqi culture. And it has to be seen like that, it must not be seen as how we see it nowadays; divided, fragmented.
“We are witnesses to our own history and what they are doing is erasing our collective memory and rewriting history in order to divide and rule.”
Quoting Czech writer Milan Kundera, Haifa said: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture and its history. Then you have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.”
But she defiantly concluded: “This is the intention. But I disagree with this presumed success. Palestinian people face a continuous struggle against Israeli attempts to erase their memory and history in Palestine [and it] has failed tremendously.
“Despite two major wars, 13 years of sanctions, occupations and terrorist attacks, Iraqis are not going to give up.”