I sat for a quarter of an hour with a woman whose husband had been kidnapped by the Islamic State group 18 months ago as her town of Qaraqosh, outside Mosul, was evacuated; his body was recovered two weeks later. Since that time she has lived with her mother and her four children where we sat -- between plastic partitions inside an Ankawa warehouse -- giving the six of them perhaps 100 square feet and a gas stove to share.
She told me her story in a state of calm and long-worn despair; she didn't cry until she asked me to read a document from the Kurdistan Regional Government hospital about her daughter. (English is the language of medicine there.) It said the problem with her daughter's spine was not serious enough to justify surgery given limited resources. She cried then at her daughter's pain and this fresh cut on a wounded future she sees no hope of healing. Philanthropy from the West and charity from the Chaldean Catholic Church that runs this camp give her and hers food and shelter and care enough to survive, but no real hope of any kind of normal future.
This woman's story is all the sadder because it is not unusual. It is one of many thousands of similar stories across Northern Iraq.
Portraits of Persecution
There are more refugees and IDPs, or Internally Displaced Persons, now than ever before. U.N. statistics say that those who end up in camps like this stay an average of 17 years. That average understates the current problem since international aid is under more stress than ever before. And the problem is likely to get worse still as Syria finishes coming apart. Syrian President Bashar Assad is a bad man, but whoever replaces him will very likely do nothing to protect the remaining one million Christians there from a possible genocide.
We all know about the persecution of Christians in Iraq, because ISIS painted the Arabic letter N, or noon for Nazarene, on the homes of Mosul Christians to mark them for forced conversion, extortion of the dhimmi tax, or death. That Arabic N became an iconic social media sensation. Despite humanitarian aid from the West, no real progress has been made to address the political situation at the root of this crisis.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq is an unfortunate byproduct of U.S. policy. They are Eastern Christians, but Islamists identify them with the West -- with the "Christian invaders." In 2003 there were about 1.6 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are perhaps 250,000.
Despite the genuine concern of our civil servants, the State Department narrative strains credulity. Officials with line authority in the area told me that the situation for Christians there isn't so bad compared to the Yazidis and others. President Obama is about to issue a declaration of genocide against Yazidis that will likely decline to include Christians, though the EU recently passed a declaration of genocide that includes Christians. The administration wants to avoid the legal and moral pressure that would be created by such a declaration. The State Department, moreover, insists that a united Iraq is our best hope against ISIS, and that the United States is "very optimistic" that Baghdad will liberate Mosul by the end of this year.
Such wishful thinking strains belief. Baghdad's celebrated liberation of Ramadi was painfully slow, and Ramadi is a tiny fraction of the size of Mosul. Moreover, Mosul, Iraq's second city, is not a place that Christians would likely return. If your Sunni neighbors had essentially invited ISIS in and stood by while they stole your property, killed some of your relatives, and ran you out of town, how eager would you be to return?