Sep 29, 2014

Bridging interfaith animosity and the pain of war

International Day of Peace in Kurdistan, Iraq
by Peggy Faw Gish, 22 September 2014
[Note: The following has been adapted for CPTnet.  The original is available on Gish’s blog.]

Three of our team walked into the gathering of about a hundred Kurdish peace and justice activists at the Cultural CafĂ©, in Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, to celebrate the International Day of Peace.  Immediately, Nyan Mohammad, a teacher at the Arbat School, waved for us to come to sit at her table.  There, four displaced Ezidis (often called Yazidis) we had met before stood up and warmly greeted us.  Nyan, who is Muslim, made a special trip to the tent camp for displaced persons this afternoon to pick up this group and bring them to this event, which focused on building peace among religious groups
Hosting this event was a Kurdish women’s organization, called the Ashti Group.  The speakers included persons from four religious groups among Iraqi Kurds— An Ezidi, a member of the Kaka’i, (a Kurdish minority religion), a Muslim, and a Christian.  They each urged us not to judge people from other religions, but to live together in tolerance and harmony.  Their message was not theoretical but spoke to a real need of a society racked with ethnic violence.

Interfaith speakers
Most interesting to me were things that the Ezidi speaker said.  First, he clarified that they call themselves “Ezidi” which implies that they believe in God, rather than the name, “Yazidi,” a derogatory name that implies that they are non-believers or believe in the devil.  Then he spoke about the Ezidi women and girls captured by ISIS.  Since it is a custom in the Ezidi religion (as well as in some other Middle Eastern communities) to see a sexual assault as an act that shames and dishonors the family,  sometimes a male member of the family views it as a duty to kill the woman, to remove the shame (called an “honor killing”).  According to the speaker, however, Ezidi leaders have just made a statement that the women and girls did not choose to be sexually assaulted, so they should not be killed.  He said that several of them have escaped their families and have welcomed them when they returned home.

Then there was a time for participants to offer questions and statements.  Several expressed frustration about religions fighting wars in the name of their God, and decried the violence perpetrated by religious groups against women.  One person asked, “Why is it that it is mostly women who speak out and work for peace?”

Then Nyan stood up and went to the microphone.  She spoke boldly, but warmly, saying, “We were glad when people cared about the Ezidi, Muslim, and Shabak families camping at our school, and came to learn about what they had gone through and about their current living conditions.  I am thankful to say that our table demonstrates what we have all been talking about—what we are striving for tonight.  We are Muslim, Ezidi, and Christian, sitting together in peace!”

Once more, I knew why I had returned to Iraqi Kurdistan this summer.  As we exchanged farewell greetings with the people at our table, I was amazed and touched by the love I had received from people who had just experienced horror and loss.  They are among the hundreds of thousands of families in Iraq and Syria uprooted from all that gave them identity and stability.  I was also moved by the love and care that people of all faiths had shown to the displaced, giving what they could to ease their way.

Far right: Kurdish team colleague Parween Aziz, next to her, Peggy Gish.  Second from left,
 Nyan Mohammad, plus four Ezidi friends

It was one of those moments that made the suffering of so many people, caused by my country’s thirst for oil and for global power, very real.  I see no good outcome ahead to the tragedy and the pain these people are enduring, but they are walking ahead with resilience and grace.

Sep 24, 2014

The new military intervention in Iraq

—on not repeating what has not worked
by Peggy Faw Gish

[Note: Peggy Gish is currently working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraqi Kurdistan. The following piece was adapted for CPTnet.  The original is available on her blog.]
Yazidi refugees driven from their homes by ISIS

For many Americans, President Obama, with his latest plan to expand U.S. military intervention in Iraq, is finally “doing something.”  And people here in Iraqi Kurdistan are generally hopeful that this will stop the militant fighters calling themselves “the Islamic State,” or for the purposes of this article, ISIS.  I keenly feel the pain of the people here and do not want any more persons brutalized, yet I believe Obama’s plan will not diminish global terrorism; it will only expand and strengthen it.

It is helpful to remember that ISIS’s ability to capture areas of Iraq was possible because of the U.S. had destroyed its society and supported the Shia government that excluded Sunni populations, subjecting them to widespread loss of jobs, attacks, mass arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings.

While our team lived and worked in Baghdad, the U.S. and Iraqi forces bombed and destroyed whole neighborhoods and cities in the name of anti-terrorism, generating more anger toward America.  The U.S. failed to support the progressive, mostly nonviolent, uprisings, around the country, against government abuse and corruption.  Throughout the years of occupation, it was clear to us that U.S. military actions in Iraq were not really directed at protecting the Iraqi people, but for protecting American personnel and U.S. economic and military interests in Iraq and the Middle East.  Then, in early August of this year, U.S. military strikes were, once again, less for protecting religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq than protecting U.S. diplomats and the large oil companies developing oil fields in the Kurdish region.

Obama used Somalia and Yemen as examples of successful collaboration against terrorism, but in reality, they point to the failure of our counter-terrorism strategy.  Bombing, drone strikes, and covert actions by Special Forces in Somalia have not diminished al Shabaab, or al-Qaeda in Yemen, but helped their recruitment.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, after thirteen years of the “Global War on Terror,” the Taliban remains strong and violence against civilians, high.

Much of the power of ISIS is in its ability to generate horrific fear.  The beheadings seem to be staged to provoke the U.S. and its allies to a military response, and to behave as jihadist groups have made out the West to be—monsters bent on global domination, exploiting and oppressing Muslims. Perpetuating this image maintains the jihadist group’s support among the local populations and brings in new recruits.

Each time the U.S. puts forth an alarmist scenario, and tells us there is no other way but military action to stop an evil force, intelligent people—who know that our wars have been robbing our society of money for human needs and giving it to corporations—are once again seduced by fear.  They are not provided with a fair debate on the political and social alternatives to a constant war for maintaining military and economic dominance around the world.

So, what are some strong non-military measures the U.S can take to weaken ISIS in Iraq and Syria and start reversing the spread of the global terrorist movement?
  • Stop the airstrikes, since they serve to strengthen the extremist movements.
  • Deal with the underlying problems that fuel extremism and global terrorism.  Support governments in providing its people with better living conditions and fair distribution of their resources.  Support local nonviolent movements for change. 
  • Develop political solutions to the crises.  In Iraq, put pressure on the Iraqi government to reverse years of anti-Sunni sectarianism.  For Syria, push the UN to restart real negotiations to end the civil war, bringing everyone involved to the table—nonviolent activists, women, refugees, armed rebels, and regional and global players. 
  • Develop a coalition of countries working on political and diplomatic, non-military actions to weaken ISIS.  Use financial pressures and stop the flow of money and weapons into the region.  Broaden the talks with Iran to develop a new partnership on these issues. 
  • Collaborate with Kurdish rebel groups already protecting minority groups from ISIS in northern Iraq—the YPG (Peoples’ protection Unit) and the PKK, (Kurdish workers party).  Take them off the terrorist list.  Work to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 
  • Reverse decades-long policies and actions of the U.S. government around the world for domination and exploitation.  Recreate world monetary systems such as the World Bank and IMF to be non-exploitive.  Allow the UN to be really representative of the global community and to address injustice.  Change US policies with Israel. 
  • Address the enormous humanitarian crisis the US helped create.  Give non-military aid. 
There are no simple, quick fix solutions, but we will not reduce the suffering from war and build peaceful and stable societies if we keep repeating the strategies that have only fueled strife.  For the U.S. and other countries, this means finding the will to make a major change in how it relates globally—laying down the old polities of seeking dominance for one’s own gain.  I don’t know a better time to start than now.

Sep 22, 2014

Support ninety Yazidi families through Wadi and Alind

 Ali Qasm Aalw

That's how many members of Ali Qasm's Aalw's were kidnapped by ISIS when they fled Sinjar/Shangal in early August. Ali, a 39-year-old Yazidi man, has not heard from his mother, grandmother, or father.  His sister managed to keep her phone when she was kidnapped, but the last time he called her ISIS militants answered and yelled at him.

That's how many families live in four unfinished houses near Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, 467 people in total.  Ali's family lives in one of these houses with eighteen other families, which has no doors or windows and will need huge improvements to house the families for the winter.  These families are out of reach of aid from the Iraqi government and other international aid agencies, and many are missing family members.

Three human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the German-Kurdish organization Wadi, the international organization Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and the Duhok-based Alind Organization, are building relationships with these families to provide various kinds of support throughout the coming months.

That's how many Iraqis have been displaced by ISIS in the last eight months, which has overwhelmed local and international aid agencies. CPT is not a humanitarian aid organization, but will accompany Wadi and Alind in their work, build relationships with these families, and share their stories and needs throughout the process.  With your help, Wadi and Alind will acquire adequate shelter, food, clothing, education, and psychological support for these Yazidi families.

By working with these ninety families, Wadi and Alind can make sure that your donations are always being put to use in the most effective way possible.  Wadi and Alind are based in Kurdistan, so your donations will reach these families very quickly.  Already with the first donations, Wadi purchased mattresses and delivered them to the families.
Donate now and share widely on your social networks.

Your donation to Wadi helps supply
 - beds for young children (ages 1-2)
 - blankets and mattresses, in preparation for fall
 - clothes and underwear for men, women, and children
 - kerosene heaters
 - gas stoves for cooking
 - cooking supplies
 - shampoo and soap
 - toys for the children
 - medicines

Later donations will provide for needs such as building renovations for winter, educational resources, and psychological care.  As the situation changes, Wadi and Alind will continue to assist these families as they return home, as well as providing psychological and other necessary care for kidnapped women who will one day return. Please join us in supporting these families, and together we can begin to heal the wounds for war.
Donate now and share widely on your social networks.

We will continue to update you as the situation and needs change.  Thank you for your support!

Sep 14, 2014

Life goes on under a shadow

by Peggy Faw Gish

[Note: The following has been adapted for CPTnet from a piece on Gish's blog.]

 Neighbors line up at bakery to buy bread

In the hot afternoon sun, two children dart into the small grocery store near our house and come out smiling with popsicles.  A woman responds to my greeting of “choni bashi?” as she fills up a bag of plums.  As the sun starts to drop closer to the horizon, clusters of boys are out on our street playing football (soccer).  Even though Kurdish and international forces are fighting the Islamic State (IS) two and a half hours away, life, in Iraqi Kurdistan, goes on.

A shadow, however, looms over the people in the Kurdish region of Iraq.  They feel it when they hear that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have taken back towns on the edge of Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS and DAASH) fighters.  But they also remember early August, when the Peshmerga had been protecting the city of Shangal (Sinjar) and the surrounding areas, but then withdrew from the area—claiming they had run out of ammunition.  The withdrawal allowed IS soldiers to come in and terrorize the Yazidi people.

Even though IS had been collaborating over the past years with some Sunni populations in Iraq, in their opposition to the oppressive actions of the al-Maliki government, it was the IS takeover of Mosul in June that made the world take notice.  Yet, it seemed that IS was moving toward Baghdad afterwards and not the northern Kurdish region, so the Kurds drew a deep breath.  Then, on 3 August, the front got a little closer when IS captured the Mosul Dam and the city of Sinjar.  Peshmerga forces responded with attempts to retake some captured towns on the edge of the Kurdish region.  But it came as a surprise, when, on 6 August, IS seized four strategic towns on a key highway and advanced to positions just minutes from Erbil, the capitol of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Many airlines canceled flights in and out of the Erbil Airport.  International companies and organizations began to evacuate personnel.  Memories resurfaced of Saddam’s regime’s genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s and of other times in their past when their families fled violence by going to Iran or Turkey.  Now, on TV, features show photos of Kurdish families fleeing during the uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991, next to almost identical photos of people fleeing IS today.  For them, history seems to repeat itself every few decades.

The Kurds of Suleimani have some comfort knowing that Peshmerga soldiers, along with international troops, are pushing IS forces farther away.  And since the closest IS controlled area now is a two hour drive away, people would see IS forces approaching before they reached their doorstep.

This underlying danger, however, is not the only way the threat from the IS has impacted Kurdish society.  In addition to the more than 200,000 Syrian refugees currently in the Kurdish region, an estimated 850,000 displaced persons from embroiled areas of Iraq have come into the Kurdish region in the past three months, putting a strain on government revenues and services.  For some of the population, latent resentments toward Arabs come to the surface.  Housing has become tighter and rents have almost doubled in many residential areas.  In Duhok Province alone, more than 600 schools are still being used for housing displaced people.  While work has started to build more displacement camps to house them, schools there and in some other areas, will be late in opening this fall.

This January, Baghdad stopped sending the Kurdish Region’s allotted 17% of the country’s oil revenues to the KRG, in protest against the Kurds independently exporting oil to Turkey.  Because of this, Kurdish government employees and civil servants (including teachers) have had wages delayed, month after month.  Increased prices of gasoline and some other commodities have set off a wave of public protests around the region.  And now, an increasing number of families worry for their husband or sons who have joined the Peshmerga fighting IS on the frontlines.

Yet, in spite of these stresses normal daily life does go on.  Here in our neighborhood, school opened this morning, so masses of children were walking along the streets and gathering excitedly in front of the school across the street from our house.  Men and women still go to work, ride the buses, walk the streets going to the corner grocery shop or bakery, and go on picnics at beautiful waterfalls in the mountains.  Each day they help their neighbors, and love their families.  With friends, they still sit around on mats on the floor, enjoying Kurdish traditional foods.  They also donate material goods for those fleeing their homes, remembering that not so long ago, their families were among those terrorized and seeking refuge.

Sep 11, 2014

9/11 in Arbat refugee camp

by John Bergen

[Note: The following, slightly adapted version, originally appeared on Bergen's blog.]

This morning, outside a playground full of brightly colored swings and slides in a camp for internally-displaced people in Arbat, Iraqi Kurdistan, I saw a tree.  Actually, four trees.  Four tiny trees, not much taller than me, planted by local NGO workers who were concerned about the children not having any shade in the summer heat, which can top 44C.  I don’t know much about plants in Kurdistan, but I can guess that trees growing in rocky, parched clay in a high semi-desert do no grow very fast—it will be years before the trees can provide good shade.

These children—Yazidi and Arab Muslim—have only been playing here for a month.  Their families live in different parts of the camp, sectioned off by ethnicity and religion.  The camp itself used to house Syrian refugees until a new camp was built for them.  Iraq is near the top of the list for most IDPs and refugees, with over a million people fleeing violence in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Palestine and over two million more fleeing ISIS or remaining displaced after the U.S. occupation—all fruits of the tree planted by the U.S. War on Terror.

Today is September 11, a fact I did not remember until my teammate mentioned it this morning.  I doubt any of these children know the significance of this day to people (like myself) from the U.S.  But they know the terror of September 11, 2001, a terror re-enacted by a traumatized United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Yemen, in Pakistan, and around the world.

Others have remarked that violence is the simplest form of communication—it does not require understanding about the other person’s worldview or opinions.  The War on Terror has never cared about the real complexity of the lives it has destroyed (be they Taliban fighter, Iraqi civilian, or U.S. soldier).  Instead, we have sought to rain terror on those who we blame for our insecurity and trauma.

Our willingness to destroy a nation, with little more justification than to prove our masculinity and use a crisis to open up Iraqi oil fields, has planted seeds that will far outlive the careers of U.S. politicians and oil profiteers.  For Iraqi people devastated by years of dictatorship and sanctions, for Kurds oppressed and manipulated for decades, and for Yazidis and others who have lived through centuries of oppression, the U.S. occupation manufactured and escalated sectarian violence that continued to burn long after U.S. troops left the country.

There is something deeply disturbing about planting a shade tree in an IDP camp.  It says that we do not expect this violence, displacement, and trauma to end any time soon.  It says that the U.S. bombs of today may defeat ISIS (and most Kurds I talk with are very happy about U.S. involvement), but they will not heal the wounds caused by the U.S. bombs from yesterday.

There is also something hopeful about planting a shade tree outside a playground in an IDP camp.  It says that we will not abandon our children to suffering without relief.  It says that Kurdish communities know war and violence, and they will not be defeated.  In the United States, we sometimes plant trees in memory of those who have died; in the semi-desert outside of Suleimani, trees are planted for the strength of the living.

The meaning of September 11, 2001 changed for me when I met people who grew up in Manhattan and remembered the shadows of the planes, the ground shaking, the dust, and the funerals.  Today, my understanding changed once again, meeting people still living in the nightmare created by the U.S. reenacting the trauma of 9/11 around the world.

Today, here in the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, I saw a commitment to long, slow, and incomplete process of healing.  Four tiny trees.  Children on swings.  I cannot help but think of the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, said shortly before he was killed for supporting the El Salvadoran resistance to U.S.-funded violence.
This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow.  We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something, and to do it well.  It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. 
I pray that we who live in the heart of Empire may have the strength to begin healing our nation and support the healing of all others.  May we plant and water shade trees, holding the horror and beauty of this world as we work for a new one.

Sep 9, 2014

Playing football with Yazidi kids

by John Bergen

[Note: The following has been adapted for CPTnet.  The original, with additional photos, is available on Bergen’s blog.]

 Bergen and friends he met at the Arbat school.

Since I’ve been in Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, working with Christian Peacemaker Teams, we have accompanied workers delivering aid to some of the nearly a million internally-displaced people fleeing the violence of ISIS (or the Islamic State, or Daash, whatever the largest and most highly-funded jihadist organization in the world wants to call itself).

Last week, we visited the small town of Arbat, where the Unite Nations has built two refugee camps, one for Syrian refugees and one for internally-displaced people, mostly Yazidis. However, when we visited, most of the Yazidis and other minorities fleeing ISIS’s ethnic cleansing were living in a crowded school while the camp was cleaned.

When we entered the school, dozens of people crowded around us. They needed medical care, they needed help finding relatives kidnapped by ISIS, they needed new IDs (some had torn up their IDs in the fear that if ISIS soldiers caught them and found out they were Yazidi, they would kill them). Long-time CPTer Peggy Gish and our translator talked with many people, trying not to promise to do things we couldn’t do.

I didn’t feel very useful listening, but I didn’t get much of a chance because several younger guys took me by the arm and asked me, in their limited English, to take their picture.We chatted, and additional young people lined up to have their picture taken. One asked for my email so he could ask for pictures to be sent.  As older people continued to crowd around the others, I played football  (the universal language) with a bunch of the younger guys.

Three years of college taught me to be critical of the white-people-go-abroad-to-take-smiling-pictures-with-brown-people trope. Too often, white North Americans will travel abroad for “service,” to “help people in need” and burn off some of their guilt for being so wealthy. These pictures normalize a structure problem: years of colonial violence, economic restructuring, and deliberate underdevelopment and theft don’t matter because “we’re all really the same.” Centuries of ethnic oppression over a decade of U.S.-led sanctions, and over a decade of U.S.-manufactured violence disappear in a story about playing soccer with Yazidi boys.


The young people I hung out with didn’t ask me to do anything for them besides take their picture and play soccer.  While there was no doubt who had the situational and structural privilege, we still connected in a way that will stay with me.

I have no doubt that those guys knew that there was the possibility that being friendly to me would help their situation. They knew the setup.   And never in that morning did I forget the fact that I’d be heading home in our air-conditioned car to our safe and secure house with its refrigerator, or that if ISIS gained ground I could quickly be on a plane for Turkey. But the simple dichotomies I had internalized about white and Westerner privilege did more to separate me than help us be humans together. I guess the conclusion of this is just that life’s complicated.

And that everyone loves football and looking good in front of the camera.