Back from oblivion
Monday, October 17th, 2016, should be remembered as the day that the comfortable, the well-fed, forty-eight inch waistbands who run Iraq decided to do something about the Islamic State’s two year long deathgrip on that country. The battle for Mosul has begun.
Two years ago I was in Iraq around September/August of 2014, and watched as thousands of people poured out of the West escaping the ISIS invasion – a driving, walking and stumbling wave of humanity desperate to flee the latest Islamic hell on earth.
Most of the displaced were Assyrians (who the world knows as “the Christians”) and Yezidis, peoples who have lived in the deserts and mountains of Iraq for thousands of years. Covered with dirt and sweat, there was no National Geographic-like nobility about the scene, just panic and fear.
For my part, I was gripped by a mixture of emotions; sadness, alertness and anger. How could this happen, I raged inside, that someone(s) could roll into a town, rape sisters, mothers and daughters, murder and steal everything that they could lay hands upon?
Sitting down with many of the dispossessed, I expected to find the same emotions, especially anger. But I did not. What I saw and heard, in their faces and voices, was a state of shock, as if they had been pushed off a high peak, a sudden free fall that was sucking all the wind out of their lungs.
There were times at which I clumsily tried to lighten the mood, especially with the young, Assyrian men who were clearly being bent under the weight of an overwhelming humiliation. I’d say things like, “Look, you got to fight back, and I will pay you $100 for every ISIS beard that you cut-off and mail to me.., but don’t try to sneak any Assyrian beards in there, because I can smell the difference!”
By way of black, post-genocidal humor, I thought it was pretty good.
My ham-firsted attempts at jocularity were sometimes met with nervous laughter, but more often with expressions of shock and disbelief; “Go anywhere near the Islamic State? Has this man come to help us or or kill us?”
Until that trip I had only read about how people behave when pressed by all-surrounding evil and pain, how they can give up and give in, like the inmates of the Nazi death camps who ran the gas chambers, worker bees in a hive of their own liquidation. I had no idea how someone might fold like that, but in Iraq in 2014, I got schooled, hard and fast.
But that was two year ago, and oh, what a difference time can make.
To set the record straight, most of those who the media are covering in the attack on the Islamic State in Mosul are not the ones who suffered the ISIS invasion. When ISIS fighters rolled into the towns and cities of northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga, for example, ran away, and the Assyrians and the Yezidis were left to fight ISIS with little to no weapons. They fought as they could, were quickly overwhelmed, and then died or ran.
But that was two years ago.
Since 2014 I have been in and out of northern Iraq many times. I have been honored, privileged, to watch how ISIS’ “victims” have found their footing, have created their own fighting forces, and have, with a clenched fist said, “No, you will not push us into nothingness.”
As I write this, the Assyrians, who have formed the Nineveh Plain Protect Units, the NPU, are fighting near the city of Qaraqosh, not far from Mosul. Qaraqosh was an Assyrian, Christian city, and as I talk with NPU fighters in Iraq, I can hear a mixture of excitement and dread in their voices. They are elated to be fighting for their towns, but wonder nervously what they will find once they get into them.
The Yezidis have joined forces with the Peshmerga or have created their own fast moving bands of guerilla fighters, men (and some women) who blend into the landscape and strike at ISIS, killing them one by one.
If you follow these posts you know that normally I build them around a single photograph, an image that I feel sums up what’s happening to the people in the places I’ve been. This time, there is simply too much going on, both in Iraq and inside me, to be carried by one photograph. Bellow is a gallery of images, photographs of the men and women who have dug in their heels and refuse to be pushed into oblivion.