From political centres of power to where there is no power

Impressions of an Journey to Iraq in August 2019 by Konstantin Mascher, Chairman of the ojcos foundation

“Some kind of adventure this is going to be!” This thought flashed through my mind when our plane approached the airport of Baghdad in the middle of the night. Contrary to our travels in the Middle East so long, all plans had been made by our oriental friends. With little luggage and big promises to meet high level officials from politics and society we left the air-conditioned airport and stepped into a hot night.

Emotional Ups and Downs

Never before in such short time have I experienced a similar up and down of extreme impressions. Power and helplessness, feeling safe and feeling threatened, suffering and joy, hope and resignation, gratefulness and frustration, joy of life and despair, restoration and destruction. Only our traveling companion, the Yazidi princess Amed Sido, brought some steadiness to this emotional roller-coaster. She has been living in Germany for 20 years now but travels regularly to Iraq, this time in the name of the relief organisation “Humanitär ohne Grenzen”. I am also accompanied by David Müller, our political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq.

From a centre of power …

Steep start: Our first official date brings us to the General Secretary of the Iraqi Council Of Ministers. In the midst of the “Green Zone” is the government building, well-known because of a Hollywood action movie with the same name and Matt Damon in a leading role. Armoured vehicles and military are positioned around the area. We receive a friendly welcome by General Secretary Hamid Naeem Al-Ghazi, who not only recognises our commitment but thanks us explicitly for building bridges and for the help by the german government in the Iraq. By asking for more strong support he shows how worried he is about the future of his home country and its people. We assure him of forwarding his wish to german members of parliament.

At the same night we were guests of the Shiite Ajatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr. The Imam and legal scholar is well known in Europe because of his readiness for dialogue and his commitment for peace and reconciliation. Military is present to guarantee his safety, which is quite meaningful and shows that his position hasn’t only friends among his fellow-believers. It is far from natural that he agrees to receive our travel companion – a woman and a Yazidi – in this Islamic institution. Amed Sido is truely moved by that.

During the following days we meet politicians and members of the iraqi and the kurdish parliament, amongst others Khasro Goran, member of the executive committee of a powerful party (PDK) in Kurdistan. Despite of the public holiday he summons his staff to support us. As former vice mayor of Mosul he knows the difficult situation at first hand and has a differentiated view of the region and the kurdish government’s efforts for an equal involvement of all religious minorities in the political process. That gives us reason to hope even though the reality seems quite different.

… to where there is no power at all

Now we travel to where those without power live – the refugee camps and orphanages. In Zakho, in the very north and close to the turkish border, one of the first refugee camps in the region of Kurdistan-Iraq was erected when ISIS became stronger. We are welcomed by a yazidi local leader, who had to flee himself and now lives here in very modest conditions. He is still concerned about the welfare of more than 50.000 Yazidis. Most of them would like to return to their home region, the Sinjar, but with regard to the badly damaged infrastructure, innumerable landmines and a generally difficult situation that seems hard to achieve.

What can we in Germany do to guarantee a safe and dignified return for the Yazidi? How far will we go – with aspect to military, diplomatic and humanitarian questions? Unless we find acceptable solutions, Europe and our country will be confronted with a bigger than ever number of refugees. We can see frustration and helplessness in his face when he shows us those tents that have burnt down recently. The camp had been planned for something like six to twelve months, now 16.000 refugees are living there since five years. The electrical supply is insufficient, short circuits cause fires, the barracks offer no shelter when around noon the temperature rises above 48°. The tension is growing rapidly.

Children indoctrinated by ISIS

After visiting two orphanages we feel upset and encouraged at the same time. ISIS has taken everything from these children. Their parents have been murdered brutally and they were indoctrinated ideologically by IS fighters. Is it possible for their house parents and teachers to overcome the devastation of their souls and refill them with love? Their cruel teachings have been burnt into their minds and hearts, how can they be converted into thoughts of peace and love? These questions are always present in our discussions. In one orphanage we meet lively happy children who are pleased to meet us and fascinated by the camera crew of the german televison that is accompanying us to record some interviews. These children and their fate still bother me. Hopefully the team from „Humanitär ohne Grenzen“ can accomplish its goal and build an orphanage within the next few months.

Generous hospitality

Our native hosts mostly accommodate us in hotels. In the north of the country, in Ba’adre we are guests of Amer Seido, the brother of the yazidi princess. ISIS has taken nearly everything from him and his family but whatever little is left, they share with us: their livingroom, table, food, companionship and their car. Often we sit with them on their patio till two in the morning. We are touched by the unselfishness of their hospitality and realise, there is much room of improvement concerning our “welcome culture”!

Destruction and Restoration

Amer Seido takes us to the cities of Ba’ashiqa und Bahzani, who were completely deserted in January 2017 after ISIS’s rage. Having seen the destroyed houses and the landmines in the streets we thought it never possible, that christians, muslims and Yazidi could ever live and work here again peacefully. Meanwhile 80% of the houses are inhabitated, (mostly) by christians and Yazidi. Numerous shops have been opened, public places and even the municipal park are busy again. With the donations to ojcos-stiftung we too can support small enterprises that guarantee a livelihood for many people.

Because we insist our host takes us to the nearby city of Mosul. In that historically important city ISIS had proclaimed its caliphate and here too the last battle was fought after which they were officially defeated. But their ideology still poisons minds and hearts of many people. In a small and inconspicious car we drive through the historic citycenter, trying not to attract any attention, windows down and never stop. The city is one gaping wound. All repair work proceeds slowly. At the same time life has returned to the streets. Even a leisure park is filled with people on this Muslim holiday. But Christians and Yazidi don’t dare to return.

Seek the welfare of the city

Every day we see: The reality of the people is far more complex and differentiated than what the news tell us. Media – even church news agencies – show only the difficult and dark sides of the country. We begin to understand the people’s desire to build and shape their lives – despite all challenges. There are places where Christians and other minorities are safe and where they have a future. None of them wish to leave their homeland. It is important to maintain and expand these living areas and to fight for them. In this country the biblical demand “seek the welfare of the city” isn’t an empty phrase but a humanitarian and political imperative!

On the night before our departure in Erbil we meet christian members of the iraqi and the kurdish parliament plus some representatives of Christian parties. They make serious allegiations against the central government of Iraq saying that they don’t care about the situation of the minorities. Again and again we are told: “Please take care of our safety and help with the restauration! We wish to stay!”

Finally Minister Ano Abdoka, a Christian, hands us some framed fragments of a 100 year old bible which had been burned by ISIS. This gift is souvenir and reminder at the same time of our promise to forward the messages and requests of the iraqi minorities to politics, churches and the citizens of Germany.

After countless safety checks we board our plane. My eyes and thoughts sweep across the dark night of this fascinating country. We marvel how in only 18 months doors have opened and networking with decision-makers of iraqi and german politics is growing. The message of peace, hope and reconciliation reaches the hearts and starts to take effect. Our world – confusing as it may be – needs such bridges, so that hunger, hate and hopelessness won’t have the last word.

More impressions and picture: