Some Iraqis hopeful, but aid groups have concerns about Mosul offensive

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ako Rasheed, Reuters

By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Iraqi
Christians are cautiously welcoming the start of the battle for Mosul and the
Ninevah Plain, their ancestral homeland of the past 14 centuries from which
they were brutally driven out by the Islamic State group more than two years

“They’ve been waiting for
this day after being forced out in the summer of 2014, and many Christians have
been living in very miserable conditions since. A number are eager to go back,”
Father Emanuel Youkhana told the Catholic News Service. The archimandrite, a
member of the Assyrian Church of the East, heads the Christian Aid Program
Northern Iraq, CAPNI.

“Of course the military
operation is just the first of several phases paving the way for their return. They
will need security and other guarantees before they go back,” Father
Youkhana said. “Also much reconstruction and rehabilitation of the region
occupied the Islamic State militants will need to take place.”

This summer,
the U.N. said that as the Mosul crisis evolves, up to 13 million people
throughout Iraq may need humanitarian aid by the year’s end — far larger than
the Syrian crisis. This would make the humanitarian operation in Mosul likely
the single largest, most complex in the world in 2016.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop
Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk, Iraq, told CNS Iraqi Christians view these
operations “with hope and fear.”

“Everything is complicated.
Still, we are waiting for what will happen after Daesh (the Arabic slang name
for Islamic State), because maybe those criminals will be thrown out of Iraq,
but the mentality remains in those who welcomed them,” Archbishop Mirkis
said. “So how do we heal the country from this kind of fanaticism, which
is very deep in society?”

The Kirkuk Archdiocese has
taken in and ministered to hundreds of Iraqi Christians displaced by the brutal
attacks of the Islamic State militants, who demanded Mosul residents leave their homes and
businesses, convert to Islam or be killed.

Prior to the Iraqi military’s capitulation
to a small group of Islamic State fighters in 2014, Mosul was inhabited by more
than 2 million people. It’s believed that only about 1 million residents remain
today. Some 130,000 have fled to other areas within Iraq, such as Kirkuk or
Kurdistan. Thousands of others are being housed in neighboring countries, such
as Jordan and Lebanon, while perhaps hundreds have been resettled or are
awaiting resettlement in the U.S., Australia and Canada. Some live in cramped
conditions in church basements. Caritas and other Catholic organizations have
been working to help them.

International humanitarian
organizations are warning that Iraqis, mainly Sunni Muslims, left in Mosul are “now
in grave danger.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and
others are urging the establishment of safe exit routes for civilians to flee
the city.

“Unless safe routes to
escape the fighting are established, many families will have no choice but to
stay and risk being killed by crossfire or bombardment, trapped beyond the
reach of humanitarian aid with little food or medical care,” said Aram
Shakaram, Save the Children’s deputy country director in Iraq.

“Those that try to flee
will be forced to navigate a city ringed with booby traps, snipers and hidden
land mines. Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are
likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale,” Shakaram warned.

The humanitarian groups
criticize instructions from Iraq’s military urging inhabitants to hunker down inside
their homes.

At best, this is
impractical in a brutal urban conflict, the groups say. At worst, it risks civilian buildings
being turned into military positions and families being used as human shields, they argue.

But even if people do manage to
flee, they also face some uncertainty. Although aid agencies have been
preparing for months, observers believe camps for the internally displaced are
ready for perhaps some 60,000 people, and these camps could be overwhelmed
within days.

The U.N. Office of the
Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs reported it is locating additional land
for extra camps to be set up. It reported that construction of additional
sites, with capacity for 250,000 people, is underway. Food rations for 220,000
families are ready for distribution, 143,000 sets of emergency household items
are in stock; latrines and showers are being readied for dispatch and 240 tons
of medication are available at distribution points. But funding toward a flash
appeal has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario.

Even if the operation rids the
area of Islamic State, Archbishop Mirkis said a number of Christians have
serious concerns about returning home without iron-clad guarantees for their
future safety.

“Who can give such
assurances? Maybe the big countries. But those who suffered the most are the Yezidis.
The Yezidis and all the minorities face the same problem. How can we have peace
with neighbors who looted our houses?” he asked.

He also expressed concerned for
civilians inside Mosul.

“All those children,
elderly and civilians are caught like in a prison. We have to think about them
too. We have to read the book of Jonah. It can explain many things to us,”
the Catholic Chaldean leader said.

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