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Providing medical aid in Iraq and Syria to abandoned communities

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

Displaced people from Afrin living in a field in Syria (Nemam Ghafouri)

Interview with Nemam Ghafouri by Seth J. Frantzman

Frantzman: Tell me about your trip

Ghafouri: I crossed the border over Tigris, from there to Qamishlo for coordination with medical committee responsible for humanitarian aid for displaced people from Afrin. From there went to Kobane and discussed the urgent need and agreed to that our support would go mainly for buying medicine, baby diapers and women hygienic items. The health committee based in Kobane was organising and arranging the aids accordingly in direct connection with the committee based in Ahras, among the IDPss. We joined the trucks that were taken by Kurdish Red Cross, a total of 35 trucks of urgent items needed. 

People in kobane did amazing job, and sharing whatever they had. The bakery was running non stop, and sending tons of bread. 

Getting there was not an easy task, as it is in the middle of conflicts zones, and we needed to get the permission from several actors including Syrian, Russian and Iranian military. 

Very difficult path, it took us more than 28 hrs. The main obstacle is the transportation. Although the area officially is under the Syrian government’s control, yet UN is not bringing any aids. 

Photos of IDPs living in tents (photos by Nemam Ghafouri)

This was at the end of March?

This was after Newroz, around the beginning of April. When we got there, there was a committee trying to organize medical aid and food distribution among the IDPs. On the way there we stopped in some of those villages along the way; and some small trucks came and filled themselves with bread and went to displaced areas.

In those areas we stayed five or six days. It’s not easy to go in and out so any opportunity to go in, you have to grab that chance. There was a possibility to take the sick people that we had registered and transport them out to Qamishli and Kobane. So it was me and two other foreigners and we came out together with them.

How many people were displaced from Afrin?

Estimated at least 250-500,000 are spread out in 15 villages in Shahbeh and Sherawa region. Some villages such as Tel Qarah, Muslimeh had been totaly abandoned and emptied from before due to ISIS war and now people living there in ruins, risks their lives because the areas are full of explosives.

 It reminded me of Sinjar in 2014, when you could not find a safe place that there were not people. Shops, mosques, ruins were full of IDPs and in the fields. People were using cars like a home, sleeping, eating in the cars; and without toilets or showers. Some older people would come just to get bread for kids.

Because of the harassment by Turkey against them, those who had family members who were YPG, or had lost a family member fighting ISIS in Raqqa or Deir ez-Zor, they were subjected to aggressiveness and targets as “pro-PKK” and their house was taken by Turkey and FSA, and many people because of fear of that, they even changed their phone number for fear of being called. And some people had relatives in Bashur and we couldn’t even use their phones. They changed the number because they were afraid those people who escaped would call them and the occupiers would make trouble and beat them up. 

And also the Yazidis that fled, I was told about 20000 Yazidis, at night I stayed with them. They were in an area in a village near Ahras, and they said their houses had been marked. Initially none of them wanted to escape but then Turkish propaganda started and said they will face the same fate as Yazidis in Sinjar and they panicked. Initially they didn’t want to go anywhere. Most of them had been returnees from Aleppo and they knew there is no where to go. Many of them had not done Syrian military service and didn’t want to end up under regime. But when the threats began then they became scared. There were a few cases reported of attacks on them. Also the Christian community told the same story and the fear they had. They said that if it had not been that and aircraft bombing.

People were very angry. The way people were reacting it was how Yazidis had been abandoned on Sinjar, angry at the world for being silent. They said that they had sent children to fight in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor against ISIS and we were left to the wolves. They were still in shock how the world allowed Erdogan to attack the city and civilians.

Photos from Syria, Ghafouri (in red) with children IDPs, and IDPs living in houses and fields (photos by Nemam Ghafouri)


And then what?

35 trucks sound a lot, but not when you have hundreds of thousands of people under the sky with no shelters. It went very fast, already by third day nothing was left to distribute. I saw the huge need for all kind of help. There were no tents or nothing. They needed basic support. Medecine was scarce. They need everything. I went back to Kobane and then I stayed there a few more days. I assessed the situation in Kobane, and discussed future plan of action. During those days we get more donation from private donors from Europe and we could help with buying more medicine.  There was urgent need for tuberculoses medicine for 30 patients there. Since I came back I had been trying to get the  medication but it seems it is almost impossible. When I eventually went back to Bashur, I spoke to international orgs and those who had a branch in Syria but they said politiely that it was not in their region of mission or geographically restricted to one area or another and basically diplomatic way of saying “no.” Because it is in Kobane and in Kurdish area, so no. It is regulated by WHO, who has not been of great help and also because of that it’s difficult to get medication from market. One get frustrated to see how they don’t want to help Kurds in Kobane but they want them to die in Raqqa.

In August 2016 I took huge amount of aids to Kobane and Qamishli and the Kurds asked me to help Manbiji people as it was being liberated. I shared it and a few months later when I went to Manbij, it was like people had been on picnic and come back. Only 5% of Manbij destroyed whereas in Kobane only 10% of Kobane was not destroyed and yet UNHCR did not give anything to the Kurdish area and they were proudly publishing that UNHCR was giving to Manbij and Aleppo, but never Kurdish area. UN is always discriminating against Kurds, because of their ideology. Even though it is the ideology that has guided Kurds to help humanity.

So then I came back to northern Iraq. I run the health center in Bajat Kandala 2 camp, treating more than 2500 patients a month. I stayed one night at the camp and then left to Sinjar. 

And then back to Sinjar?

When I was in Kobane, Yazidi  people were sending me messages about how bad it was. And Turkey was threatening to attack Sinjar and people were desperate and people wanted to leave. But Iraq government said anyone who leaves, they can only bring with them 5 kilos. So they could not move back. It was really difficult to get any medical support or humanitarian aid. Since October 2017 Iraq had taken over the area and most NGOs had left due to security and complications for international NGOs, so for instance they must register in Baghdad. And it’s a big headache and no one helps and for a small organization like us to spend hundreds of dollars for registeration in Baghdad its not working.

So the situation in Shingal/Sinjar was really bad. So when I went there I went to Sinjar and Snune hospital which had been closed, but they had opened again. In other areas if you pay 250 Iraqi Dinar for visiting governmental hospital, it would be 3,000 Iraqi Dinar for Yazidi who have returned back to Sinjar

One need to go via Mosul and Tal afar to Sinjar since October 2017.. I could not take one single picture in Mosul or Tel Afar, the only thing I was hearing in my head was the voices of girls and children who told me their stories who had been raped by doctors in Mosul hospital, pulled around in Mosul, or the last girl who came back from Mosul with her baby, and that the baby was taken away because her father was ISIS; this is what was going on in my mind and soul and I couldn’t bring myself to photograph, it was an iron wall between me and the city; it was so harsh. I was thinking, how on earth they are sending back women and children from Sinjar and sending them to hospital in Tal Afar or Mosul or force them to go to Mosul for paperwork. I have video of a girl who was asked to go back to Mosul to get paper and she is going to see the civilian eyes of the people who under ISIS were worse than ISIS. At night time when ISIS raping her, and in the day the wife would burn her and accuse her of having sex with her husband, and these were civilians and these rapists went free. Imagine when they come what goes through their mind and soul and heart; one of the most difficult trips I have ever done. It was not dangerous in other senses.

It was not an easy journey but I adore those women and children forced to go back there for their bravery. If me feeling like this, imagine what they will go through when they are driving through the cities. 

I was in Sinjar for one week. Sinjar looks like exactly as it was when it was liberated in 2015, if not worse today. There are hardly any rebuilding or rehabilitation. Basically it is just Snune where there is some life.  Even for people who want to return to Kocho or other villages south of the mountain, it is still like going through a hell, because it is not easy to get permissions and feel safe, because it is not cleaned of IEDs. In addition with the political instability of  Sinjar where there so many fractions and groups within the local people, central governments, Kurdish governments, threat from neighbouring country, and not thinking about the Shingal people and political tensions of a new war on the threshold of their household again. And the flags of Imam Ali and Khomeinei and no one dares to say anything. 

You see a lot of PMU?

Not everywhere, not in north of Shingal but in the south. In the north nobody and everyone controls things. Qasim Shesho is still there in Shfar-Din. The same way he saved Sharfadin temple from sunni ISIS so he has saved it from Shia Hashd and few times there were high tension and clashes but not of major. The wife of one of his fighter had gone to Shingal city and was arrested by Hashd who did not want to release her. Then they arrested three Hashd who were drinking alcohol, one of them related to a high positioned Hashd. They finally released the lady in exchange to the three drunken men. 

Heydar Shesho is also there in Snune. At least they have stayed and made sure that Arabs not invading the area. No matter what is the political ambitions or ideology, I would say that’s good, I wish they would come to their senses and get together.

Also the Iraqi government  has tried to put so-called civilian police on checkpoints but the military is everywhere. And when PMU goes to hospital they go in fully armed, they don’t take off their tactical vests and hand grenades. The workers said they were scared to take blood tests.

And on the mountain the situation is the same way if not worse than 2015. Since October most of the NGOs left and only a few stubborn ones remained; slowly, slowly a few started to go back. The situation up there is really bad. There is only one health center with hardly any medicine. But  the YPG run mobile health and were coming twice a week with a  specialist doctor to do ultrasounds. From Iraqi and Kurdish side there was nothing. One ngo runs a so called primary health centre. So this one clinic had a nurse and pharmacist. We discussed this situation for hours with 15,000 people there with no health care. They have to go to Snune or Tal Afar and Mosul. And that’s only those who can afford.

There is only a few hours a day of electricity. Before the election they tried to make it longer to fool people but its only a few hours a day. School was there. And I went to the school on the way to the clinic. I didn’t ask about salaries or teachers. But I saw there are students and I spoke to them.

No presence of UN or anything?

No. I didn’t see any. I think the organization running the clinic is implementing it from WHO. It doesn’t seem they have paid salary for months.

Then you went back to Iraqi Kurdistan?

Yes we had a meeting in Erbil. I explained for them the situation in Shingal. Basically I just got a cold shoulder from WHO. They asked me to write down my points and assessment. I felt it was just to so they could say they said something. I also mentioned the issue of the TB and didn’t get any response. After few days there was a huge humanitarian conference arranged by KRG and there were UN, three KRG governorates, and international organization and the consulates. And Ministers came. And again I raised the issue about Yazidis and said it is a shame for international and national society. I said we are facing this situation that Yazidi women have to go to Tal Afar and Mosul where wounds are fresh and no rehabilitations. I mentioned how Christians who come back to areas around Mosul they have to pay bills for electricity used by ISIS during the occupation; this is how Abadi did things, asking people to pay electricity bills, such as $1,100 for a house and Abadi was going around and begging international society for money to rebuilding and returned and yet in their homeland they were doing this.

I also asked for help for Afrin but didn’t get much response.

A final note?

To give basic humanitarian aids has never been so difficult as today and specially in this region, and it is unbelievable how UN turn a blind eye and discriminating people because of their ideology, for not helping them with shelter, food and medicine while their children been killed defending humanity. It is time to secure path to help not going a long with war in order to survive, this was not what UN was born for when it was created.

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