Mike Simpson, CEO, at a Yazidi shrine in northern Iraq

It is not over!

I write this in Amman, Jordan on our way back to England from Iraq. We have spent nearly a week in the north of Iraq and in Kurdistan meeting key community, political and UN figures. The aim is to build a credible strategy for our peacebuilding work in the country. Media coverage suggests that ISIS have been defeated in Iraq. But it is not over, because the threat is very much alive.

The genocide of the Yazidi people

To put this in context, our conversation with the Yazidi organisation Al-Zaiton is worth recounting. You may know that the Yazidis suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS. We met with Sala and Ghanim from Al-Zaiton one evening in a run-down windowless office in Erbil. The power went off and we were sat in complete darkness which was eerie. We used our mobile phone torches to continue the conversation, placing them on the table with water bottles on top to extend the light. The deep shadows that were cast by this makeshift lighting truly matched the tone of the conversation.

Sala and Ghanim told us of the more than 400 Yazidi widows in the village of Bashiqa, all victims of the ISIS terror. They told us of the many thousands of olive trees destroyed by ISIS. These had been the livelihood of the Christian and Yazidi communities who lived in this village and who are now returning. Worse still, they mentioned that they had personally seen 14 mass graves in Sinjar and that they believe there are 73 graves altogether.

Left to right: Abdulrahman Mohammed (Iraq Programme Manager), Mike Simpson (CEO), Falah Mustafa Bakir (KRG Foreign Minister),
Christopher Segar (Trustee), Siham Jabali Mamand (Assistant Head, Department of Foreign Relations, KRG)

The ISIS ideology is still powerful

Many people have told us that while ISIS has been defeated militarily in Iraq, thousands of fighters remain in the country. During our trip, we met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Kurdish Regional Government, Falah Mustafa Bakir. He estimates there are still over 6,000 ISIS fighters in the north. Most are believed to have melted into Sunni communities. At one of the IDP camps, 700 ISIS fighters were arrested. Hundreds of ISIS sympathisers are believed to still be there.

The ideology of ISIS is still active and fermenting in Iraq. The fear is that Iraq will see the rise of ISIS Mark 2 or Al-Qaeda Mark 3. Added to this is the impact of the multiple militias which are active and control checkpoints all over the north. The ordinary people want to just get on with their lives. They need security and to be confident that they will be properly protected by the authorities. They ask, “Who is in charge?” and “Who can we trust?

Building trust

While in Erbil, we also met with the Kurdish Interior Minister, Karim Sinjari. We explained that we can do little to affect the immediate security situation. However, we can help to build relationships of trust between the Iraqi people. Indeed, this is essential in the medium term.

One of our aims going forward is to support the local people and leadership in building ‘social cohesion’. This is a bit of jargon from the UN and the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) but it encapsulates in two words what is needed. In order to get to the point of ‘social cohesion’ we will engage with all the religious and ethnic communities. Our work will develop in stages, initially based in areas where we have existing relationships. Listening to local people and hearing their perspective is the first stage. We hope to move quickly because divisions will become more entrenched with the passing of time. People have so much distrust of ‘the other’.

A particular focus of our work is likely to be children and young people. We may work with others to develop activities which include football, dance, art and music. Evidence suggests that these are powerful ways to bring young people together and give them a positive focus. We will be listening to the local communities as we design our programme. What works for some ethnic and religious groups does not necessarily work for others.

A football pitch used by members of the Yazidi community. We will be raising money for our football pitch in Erbil in the coming weeks

In Part II

We met with the leadership of UNICEF in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk and in Erbil. Our new Iraq Programme Manager, Abdulrahman Mohammed, used to work for UNICEF and we hope to partner with them on the social cohesion project. Watch this space. In Part II next week I will share details about our meetings with the Christian leaders we met and how we are progressing our Nineveh SEED projects.

Please show your support this Easter

As you can see, for a small charity we are punching above our weight. Despite the challenges we face, our work continues to have a positive impact. To support our work in Iraq and Jordan, please make a donation via our donate page (there are numerous options for how to donate). Or you can send us a cheque made out to ‘FRRME’ to: FRRME, PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 9DL, United Kingdom

Thank you for your support, 

Mike Simpson, CEO