Two years ago today the Tell History team was going about their daily routines working and living in Erbil, Kurdistan Region Iraq, about 80 kms away from Mosul. We had no idea that the region was going to be struck by one major humanitarian tragedy after the other inflicted by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the collapse of the Iraqi army.
Alex, our cofounder, was working as a journalist and heard rumors that Mosul city had fallen. The news came to us that hundreds of thousands of people were heading towards the border of Erbil and Duhok.
The rumors proved to be true. I was volunteering with a local Kurdish charity, focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis. On 10 June 2014, we got the call from the highest authorities in the Kurdish government that our organization was requested to instantly mobilize resources for a first relief mission at the gates of the cities of Erbil and Dohuk. Thousands and thousands of cars and families were queuing in the searing heat to enter the autonomous region having fled Mosul overnight.
ISIS had actually begun a major attack on Mosul city on 4 June 2014, and by 10 June the Iraqi Army had completely withdrawn and abandoned the area, stripping off uniforms and leaving pipelines and the city unguarded. The second largest Iraqi city (after Baghdad) was left in the hands of a couple of hundred ISIS fighters.
Not only had the population been abandoned, but the Iraqi Army left behind millions of dollars worth of sophisticated military equipment–much of which was equipped by US government over the last decade. With those weapons ISIS grew exponentially stronger, while continuing both their reign of terror and unbelievably efficient social media campaign, spreading fear and destruction.
After the fall, mobilizing help for those seeking refuge
Within 48 hours, over 300,000 people were internally displaced and fleeing into areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Nobody expected this development, and it is only natural that relief efforts for such a sudden influx of such a large number of people were more ad hoc than coordinated. Nevertheless, the KRG opened its borders, and the local authorities together with civil society did their best to do everything they can to help those people in need.
Our other co-founder Sarah, who was then working in the private sector, redirected company operations to support relief efforts wherever they could to help the internally displaced Iraqis. The Kurdistan Region’s response was a true victory of humanitarianism through all sectors of society and life.
It was especially remarkable because of the city’s history: in the past Kurds had suffered brutal attacks in Mosul, which sheltered many of the Baathists that were responsible for a murderous campaign against Kurds under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. Despite everything, the majority of the population was still aware of what it means to lose everything overnight and flee for your life. They remembered the 1990 mass exodus of millions of Kurds from Iraq to the mountains of Turkey and Iran.
The crisis found ordinary citizens, like you and me, cooking food for those seeking a safe haven, sending clothes and water to thousands of families. Many of them were quickly finding provisional shelter in construction sites, the legacy of a stalled housing boom. After a time the international humanitarian community got their affairs in order and launched their relief campaigns.
Try to imagine what it is like live with no protection from the dust and a minimum of 40 degrees Celsius in the summer. Imagine no sanitation facilities or running water. To have left everything, but what could be carried, behind. But at least they were safe.
And the reign of terror had just started
Little though did we all know that by August the Kurdistan Region will witness another wave of internal displacement with another 400,000 people fleeing into the KRG after ISIS attacked Sinjar. It was the start of the tragedy of the Yezidi genocide which unfolded in front of the eyes of the world.
Two years on from the fall of Mosul, the Kurdistan Region, which has a population of 5-6 million is hosting around 1.8 million people who fled their homes in other areas of Iraq and over 250,000 Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile new UN estimates and scenarios regarding the current military operations to liberate Fallujah and Mosul city from ISIS, talk about another 300,000 to 1 million Iraqis to be displaced and headed towards the safe Kurdish areas. We hope that on June 10 next year there will be a brighter outlook.