Dawn is breaking. A few exhausted families are arriving at their destination after walking all night. The road is long for those seeking shelter from the violence of the Islamic State (IS). The last barrier is the Tigris River. Parents and children board motor boats travelling to Al-Shirqat, a small Iraqi town that is relatively safe.
The crossing inspires a sense of freedom in the women. They take off their veils and jump into the water, safe from the punishments handed out by the IS. During the day, the jihadi do not dare approach the river: sharpshooters from an Iraqi militia are posted on the rocky banks opposite.
Upon arriving, men are separated from women and children before being taken aside for questioning by militia. The risk of IS fighters attempting to cross the river with families is high. Displaced populations face extremely serious situations. According to Patrick Freymond, the coordinator of Terre des hommes’ emergency operations in Iraq, “People leave everything behind in the bombing and fighting. When they get here, they have nothing.”
Terre des hommes (Tdh) has set up a reception centre where families can get food, blankets and clothing. They can also wash in bathrooms set up for this purpose.
The mothers are extremely relieved. The children cannot hide their joy when they see the toys at Tdh’s reception centre. Most have not seen toys for two or three years. They throw themselves at the dolls, drawing materials and balls, and start playing in the small playground in front of the building. All day long, they play outside.
When night falls, everyone must return inside. IS fighters regularly venture out onto the Tigris River seeking revenge. “The jihadi want to prove they still exist. They’ll do anything to try and put up a fight: they want to avoid being captured by coalition forces and die as heroes,” explains Patrick Freymond.
Shooting breaks out. The centre may need to be evacuated. In the end, everyone is able to stay. The Tdh team is in constant contact with the militia defending Al-Shirqat.
“We work with liaison offers, so we get almost real-time information whenever something happens,” says Patrick Freymond.
Because we were the first NGO to help displaced people south of Mosul, we were quickly accepted by the population. “They appreciate the quality of our work and are willing to defend us, ’tooth and nail’, as they say. No matter what happens. We’re honoured by their trust and thankful for their protection.”
The night has been long. Nubras, the 12-year-old girl is petrified: “There are always shots and explosions. IS threatens us and we’re afraid of having our throats slit.” She and her family take to the road again, heading to the city of Tikrit.
For families and Tdh team members, travel is always risky. At many check-points, however, the words ‘Terre des hommes’ open doors. The militia know that Tdh has already worked in the region. It was the first international NGO to provide aid in Tikrit. And the soldiers have not forgotten that Tdh reconnected the water supplies.
At Nazrawa Camp, near Kirkuk, Tdh has set up a protected area where children can play and learn. They start queuing for activities early in the morning. Fady Shamoon works in this centre. He is responsible for ensuring the camp’s security and implementing new reception structures. His goal in working for Tdh is to “give something to others”.
Tdh staff try to get as close as possible to the frontline to help the vulnerable people who gather there. Fady says, “We recently tried to set up a new centre. We were well prepared, but the road was barely sealed. We drove from 5 a.m. to midnight, at 3 km/h, with no headlights so we wouldn’t be spotted by the IS.”
Despite the risks, Fady is committed to setting up new centres for displaced families. “My colleagues and I, we will help these people, because there is a voice inside me saying ‘Work, work – never stop.’”
There are three million internally displaced persons in Iraq. Most have sold all their belongings and are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. There are almost no jobs and the local population, which initially helped them generously, is less welcoming. Many have no choice but to go to refugee camps, which are already home to approximately 500,000 people. And this number is constantly growing: the authorities regularly move new escapees to these temporary structures to take pressure off cities.
We have worked in Iraqi Kurdistan since the beginning of the conflict. Very early on, we expanded our operations to areas where children needed us most and places where humanitarian aid was lacking. Following our integration efforts, we are now able to work in regions close to the frontline, providing support to residents as soon as they manage to escape.
displaced people were provided with drinking water on a daily basis
children followed psychosocial and recreational activities
people benefited from the distribution of shelter and emergency kits
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