As the military campaign to re-take Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State group continues, Catholic Relief Services has already begun serving people fleeing from a nearby city that has been liberated.
CRS, collaborating with Caritas Iraq, is assisting residents of Hawija, a city of about 100,000 people east of Mosul. Its liberation began a couple of weeks before the operation in Mosul.
But as the agency implements humanitarian aid plans for Mosul, two major concerns are at the forefront: getting access to those in need and getting them adequate shelter before winter.
“The main challenge that everyone is concerned about is the winter,” said Kevin Hartigan, CRS’s Cairo-based regional director for Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. “If we have to get them into some kind of shelter before winter, if the numbers are very high, it’s going to be a challenge. Camps are not ready to receive them…. It’s still warm now, but the winter is pretty harsh up there.”
“Also, we’ll have a hard time getting access to people because of the military activity,” Hartigan said.
But Catholic Relief is preparing to provide water, food, shelter and sanitation to the displaced from Mosul.
Hartigan said that people coming out of Hawija are telling “awful stories” about what life was like under ISIS rule.
“One family spent about two years plotting escape, moving to different villages trying to get near to the edge of ISIS territory,” he said. “Their main concern was their boy, who was about 11. His grandmother said ISIS would take the boy. They didn’t send the kids to school all this time. It sounds like there’s a lot of press-ganging of young boys into their armed forces.”
If ISIS knew the family was thinking of escaping, Hartigan related, “they would be killed.”
Meanwhile, CRS continues to assist Christians who are internally displaced in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.
“Our focus is on education,” Hartigan said. “Many of the children have been out of school for a couple of years. So we’re trying to create schools, classrooms, training teachers, so these kids don’t become a lost generation, educationally.”
In addition to humanitarian concerns, there are also worries about the future of the region, once ISIS is defeated.
“We are going to face a new challenge with liberating Mosul,” said Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, during a visit to New York Monday.
“How are we going to convince [Christians] to go back to their villages? We need a plan. We need some good, concrete plans.”
The archbishop was visiting the offices of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which has been supporting internally displaced persons in northern Iraq.
People need “social intervention and political intervention, economic intervention and, most importantly, how we are going to reconcile all those divided groups which will remain, and they’ve been called to live together?” Archbishop Warda said.
An Iraqi priest of the Church of the East who runs the Christian Aid Program in Northern Iraq, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, said during a recent visit to CNEWA, “Certain conditions, certain guarantees, have to be met to prevent this from happening again. How do we restore coexistence and mutual trust?”