Oh dear me – I drafted this post long ago, and then got pretty busy at work and never posted it! Time to get back on the horse and get writing a few more – LOTS to say, so here’s this one from weeks ago…
So, on to a bit more about what I’m doing out here when I’m not posing in front of mountains or being called Wayne Rooney by the Peshmerga (no, I have not gotten over it and I don’t expect I’ll stop being offended for quite some time).
After arriving in Kurdistan, I moved south to visit some villages and IDP camps along the southern border areas between KRI and Iraq. The battle with ISIS is still very recent and in some places still happening not too far away, so rest assured we are following security procedures as best we can.
On a visit to a particular town we were shown around the site of a car bomb which exploded less than 2 months ago outside the Government buildings in the centre of town. This area is now heavily guarded and there are several checkpoints, blockades, and a general decor of concrete blast protectors and razor-wire. It creates quite the sense of war-time ambience.
I was actually shocked at the extent of the damage. I mean, a car bomb doesn’t sound great, but I’ve always assumed the radius of destruction would be relatively small. I was wrong. I guess it depends on just how much explosive you have in your car at the time too. Anyway this particular carbomb took out an entire building, parts of the neighbouring buildings, as well as an entire building across the street.
As we were escorted around the area, a soldier helpfully held back some razor wire for me to clamber over a wall, which led to a classically comedic Maya-moment in which I first got my cardigan tangled up in the razor wire, and then got a massive leg-cramp as I stepped over the wall, leaving me hopping about like a lunatic. Not my finest hour.
The people who live nearby were keen to show us the level of destruction to their homes and offices, and I was struck by how recent it all was – nothing has yet been cleared away, apart from the road itself, and there was still a bloody handprint on the wall, leaving a rather haunting impression of what had so recently occurred there. One man was talking animatedly in Arabic, and before anyone had time to translate, he removed his eye from the socket to show us his injury, sustained during the car bomb. Obviously we realised afterwards that he now has an empty socket and a plastic eye!
In general we’re keeping a very low profile here – no logos, branded t-shirts or branded cars, at least for the moment. As our security officer helpfully pointed out, if the Red Cross aren’t using visibility, then neither are we! A handy tip I thought! The Red Cross/Red Crescent are generally a lot more neutral than most NGOs, and often they will be safer than others as a result when travelling around, but if they aren’t advertising their presence in certain areas, then we don’t either.
The conditions here are fairly grim. Most people have fled from the conflict and fighting, and ended up in villages where they have relatives or friends, neighbours or other people from the same ethnic group as them. Clans and tribes seem to be sticking together fairly closely, but the host communities are struggling to take everyone in. Families in Iraq are often quite large – average of 6 people per family, but often 10 or 12 people, so the host community are struggling to accommodate so many extra mouths to feed and find places for them to sleep.
Lots of people have settled into unfinished buildings (buildings still under construction, often missing parts of the walls or roofs) and chicken barns – long low farm buildings made of mud bricks with straw roofs. Using plastic sheeting around the upright supports they can section off areas into rooms for each family, but it’s very overcrowded and they are getting a lot of skin diseases and other health problems from sleeping in animal pens. It’s extremely cold in the winter here, so there has been snow, wind and rain, and sub-zero temperatures, all of which are extremely tough to deal with when you ran away with nothing but the clothes on your back. Many people have been living in these animal pens for months, with no toilets or access to clean water, and slowly selling their jewellry and savings to buy food. They often have to skip meals, or ration food to get by, and I met one woman who had given birth in the chicken shed just 10 days earlier, and was scared that her baby was going to freeze to death because they couldn’t keep him warm enough in the barn.
Part of our emergency response involves giving out heaters and kerosene fuel, blankets, mattresses and plastic sheeting to patch the holes in the roof or walls. It’s an enormously difficult undertaking – moving large quantities of bulky objects around on bad roads, through security checkpoints, where the men with guns always ask where their heaters and blankets are. I feel bad for some of them – the peshmerga and other armed groups are getting used to seeing us going up and down the same roads with trucks full of supplies, and although we don’t give aid to armed groups, you can see that the soldiers themselves are living in pretty bad conditions – many haven’t been paid for a while, and don’t have heaters and blankets themselves. One of the soldiers we regularly see at the checkpoint is always smiling, even as he’s shivering in his camouflage t-shirt, as he doesn’t have a coat or jumper to wear.
We’ve been fairly cold ourselves, not just standing outside all day distributing, but in our new guesthouse, where the power is frequently off, and running any of the heaters throws the fuses and plunges us all into darkness. The houses here are designed more for the hot weather than the cold, with big concrete rooms and tiled floors – very hard to heat! Luckily I brought woolly jumpers with me, and a kind colleague brought me a hot water bottle too, so I’m sleeping a bit better now!