A living hell makes death preferable. At her lowest point, Runak (not her real name) wanted to be bombed by western jets rather than live in Islamic State (IS) captivity. Her story should shock us into action.
Runak is a Kurdish Yazidi and one of 5,000 women and children enslaved by IS. Her husband was taken, presumed dead. Her eldest son was abducted, probably to an IS training camp. Her eight-year old son was held for months and returned, probably after sexual abuse.
In one year Runak was auctioned to many men as a spoil of war and witnessed torture, murder, and children dying of hunger. On a terrifying journey from Iraq to Syria she saw IS fighters select women and separate them from terrified children. One woman shaved off her children’s hair and eyebrows to fool IS into thinking they had cancer so she would keep them. Eventually Runak and others were bought by a man who starved them and when being bombed to smithereens seemed better than being hungry slaves.
But Runak and four of her children survived. Her younger son was returned, and they escaped to Kurdistan, as have 1,300 others. They live at one of many camps for internally displaced people but thousands remain with IS and some may have been trafficked as far as Thailand.
Sherri Kraham Talabany, the founder of the SEED Foundation, runs a centre in one camp, funded largely by local businesses. Sherri, a determined American who was a senior official at the State Department in Washington and now lives in Kurdistan, puts the Yazidi story in context.
Many other Kurds suffered decades of violence and persecution as targets of Saddam Hussein’s genocide. His regime may have killed as many as 182,000 people in 1987/1988 and the worst atrocity was the chemical bombardment of Halabja, during which five thousand died in days. “But the problem,” says Sherri, “is very few survivors of torture and violence ever received any psychological support. The genocide was overtaken by the invasion of Kuwait, the Kurdish Uprising in 1991 and the establishment of an autonomous region buffeted by UN and Iraqi sanctions, poverty, and civil war. The imperatives of survival and limited resources meant those who had suffered fended for themselves. They had no help coping with their trauma then and most have gone untreated, so they experience the symptoms as if it were yesterday.”
The genocide against the Yazidis is an opportunity to learn lessons and systematically organise services for victims. SEED promotes sustainable development and delivers humanitarian assistance. Its motto is no survivor should suffer alone. Sherri’s centre caters for hundreds of people every day: “it provides psychosocial counselling for those who have seen someone murdered, tortured or raped or who are victims of rape and abuse. We increase their skills in healthcare, hygiene and other life skills, as well as understanding human rights so they can overcome their marginal status and become healthier and more resilient.”
The centre includes a small agricultural plot where women grow fruit and vegetables which are used in cookery classes. Livelihood training for men includes turning wooden pallets into affordable, beautiful and rustic furniture, so they can earn an income to meet basic needs. Baking, knitting and sewing classes as well as music classes attract hundreds. Recreational activities create an opportunity to socialise, critical for healing and reducing the stigma of attending the centre.
But the Kurdistan Region shoulders a huge humanitarian burden. The country normally has about five million people but that has soared by a third since 2014. Its government’s resources have been stretched to breaking point by this as well as war, budget cuts by Baghdad, and falling oil prices. The liberation of Mosul will also sharply increase those needing help.
All this suffering evokes W H Auden’s poem, “The Shield of Achilles”, which describes a concentration camp where
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
Its crescendo of disgust echoes today.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
The IS nightmare will one day end, but its barbarity and inhumanity will remain vivid for survivors without greater support for SEED and other humanitarian and development programmes. We should not watch from without but should speak up for the Runaks of the world.
To follow the SEED Foundation or donate, visit www.seedkurdistan.org.