First things first. The World Food Program operates under the four principles of humanitarian response. Humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Before we get to the meat of this post I must stress that at no point can the WFP, or I, as a temporary contractor in their service, take sides in hostilities or engage in political, racial, religious or ideological conflicts or conversations. It is imperative that the WFP be able to work with any organization or political power at any time to gain access to populations in need. The photographs I am posting here represent neither condemnation nor celebration of the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, known as the Peshmerga. The WFP communications team I was traveling with was only on this military base to track displaced Yazidis as they were being airlifted off of Sinjar Mountain and brought to this compound, behind stable Iraqi Kurdistan lines in Duhok Province. We were not there to report on military movements or conditions. Our mission was solely to document and interview IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who would be receiving WFP assistance. In so doing we unknowingly turned out to be on the cusp of a notable moment in the struggle between the Peshmerga and ISIS. I’m sharing these photos solely for their relevance to current events. No future posts concerning my trip to Iraq will focus on military subject matter, they will solely be concerned with the refugee and IDP crises and the civilian face of war. If any bias creeps into this post it is solely my own and has no reflection on the WFP.
“This is the single biggest military offensive against ISIS, and the most successful.” – The Kurdistan Regional Security Council
Big news hit Friday as I was flying from Erbil to Istanbul for my connecting leg back to the States. CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera were all leading with it. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, backed by American-led coalition airstrikes, had broken the siege of Mt. Sinjar.
A little back story to ram home the relevance of this military operation. The Yazidi are a Kurdish ethno-religious community who live primarily in the Nineveh Governance of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, which borders Syrian Kurdistan. In August, during the ISIS takeover of Sinjar, a town of about eighty-eight thousand just south of Mt Sinjar, an estimated three hundred Yazidi Kurds (but also some Arab and Assyrian minorities) were killed. Captured men and women were separated, boys were forced into military training and women were enslaved, raped and sold. Tens of thousands managed to escape north to the mountain. This slaughter, and the following struggle of the Yazidi Kurds to survive, galvanized the International Coalition to intervene. This intervention first began with airdropped supplies, then evolved into airlift rescues, and eventually, the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes began. A detailed Washington Post map explaining the situation at the time can be found here.
The successful military action is a significant one for anti-ISIS forces in Iraq. Not only does it liberate some of the Yazidi territory, it breaks ISIS control of the land between the autonomous Kurdish region and the Syrian border. The victory is also viewed as key in the ultimate expulsion of ISIS from northern Iraq altogether, though there’s still much to be done on that front as Mosul, with a population of over a million Arabs (as well as Assyrian, Iraqi Turkmen and various Kurdish minorities), is still controlled by ISIS. It’s there, in Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has announced himself caliph of his self-proclaimed caliphate, the “Islamic State”.
Some forty-eight hours before hearing of the military victory, a WFP communications team and I had made our way to the “General Command of the Kurdistan Regional Protecting Force Base: Zerevan Peshmerga” (I’m taking that title directly from a sign I photographed) in an effort to observe the airlifting in of IDPs from Mt. Sinjar. As we pulled in to the base we could see the helicopter descending for a landing up the hill, obscured by low buildings. We’d missed the moment by mere minutes. As we continued the drive up to the elevated concrete deployment and landing area we passed IDP’s who had immediately begun their long trek to find other family members, or perhaps a home amongst the camps littered across the green hills of the region. We persisted on up the hill, hopping to catch a second helicopter landing. What we found instead was a Peshmerga unit preparing to mobilize.
Hearing the news on Friday, my WFP liaison who I was flying with came to the conclusion that the men who we had met less than two days before must’ve been on their way to take part in breaking the months-long siege of Mt. Sinjar and the surrounding villages. If this is correct, then the following photographs feature some of the faces of the men who fought, just hours before the world heard of their victory.
Thanks for reading. More from my Iraq trip soon.