Iraq

MAG phone calls help Yazidi families returning to mine-ridden Sinjar

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On 3 August, the world stands with the Yazidi community in Iraq as it marks the anniversary of the brutal crimes committed against it by ISIS in 2014.

On the sixth anniversary of the atrocities, MAG is warning of the dangers of improvised landmines pose to hundreds of Yazidi families returning to the Sinjar district.

Coronavirus travel and work restrictions are leaving Yazidi families with little choice but to return from the refugee camps and settlements to which they fled to escape ISIS.

The families are returning to a region littered with improvised landmines and other deadly explosives left behind by the same ISIS forces responsible for the massacre that devastated their communities.

There are thousands of deadly devices remaining in homes, buildings and fields across northern Iraq. On the south side of Sinjar mountain where many of these Yazidis have returned, people are killed or injured by these devices on a daily basis.

In this context, and with Covid-19 restrictions in place, MAG’s community liaison team in Iraq is delivering life-saving risk education over the phone, calling up the returning families to deliver vital safety messages on how to recognise, avoid, and report explosive dangers, so they can stay as safe as possible until the deadly items can be cleared.

The teams hope to reach over 500 returning Yazidi families in 44 villages and have already reached over 100 families.

On top of the dangers they face, many families are also living in terrible conditions, in damaged houses with no running water or electricity or infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and shops. Some families are forced to live in tents.

A recent Amnesty International report highlighted the trauma Yazidi children are experiencing, partly due to such living conditions.

Suzan Nawaf, MAG's Community Liaison Officer in Iraq, says:

“Many Yazidi people are returning to terrible conditions, with their houses destroyed, no electricity, no water, and their land littered with improvised landmines and other explosive hazards. People here are killed or injured by these devices on a daily basis.

“People hoped to farm their land when they got back, but some can’t even do that now because the area is contaminated with explosive weapons.

“MAG’s teams are calling up as many families as we can to give them messages about how they can stay safe until the dangers are cleared.

"ISIS may have been forced out of northern Iraq, but six years on from the damage they inflicted on this community, we must do everything we can to ensure their legacy doesn't claim more lives."

Darweesh, who has eight children, was one of the first people to return to his village in Sinjar:

“I can never forget the day we fled our village, it was horrible and I couldn’t believe that I had to leave with only the essentials. I still remember the date we left, it was August 13, 2014. We went to Duhok and lived there for three years, it wasn’t easy but people were very helpful and they supported us when we had nothing.

“After the liberation, we couldn’t go back to our village until June due to explosive items that are scattered on our land.

“A lot of accidents happened to many people in our village, some to our relatives.

“When I first went back with my family, I was very careful when taking any steps, but still, I needed more information on war remnants and that’s what I got from the MAG teams.”

Zeran, a young father, is another of the returnees MAG has been able to reach:

"I left Sinjar after the ISIS invasion in 2014, I was 22-years-old and fled with my family. We fled to the mountains and stayed there for 15 days before we eventually managed to escape to Sinuni where we stayed until we came back home last month."

“When we came back, we discovered that our house was contaminated with explosives. It is a very good thing that MAG has managed to reach people remotely. But I am hoping that this pandemic ends soon so they can go back to work and clear the land.”

MAG began its work in Iraq in 1992, and since 2015 has been responding to this crisis in areas formerly held by ISIS. In these areas, we have made safe 27,500,000 square metres of contaminated land, found and destroyed over 17,000 mines, unexploded bombs and other explosives, and delivered mine risk education sessions to over 400,000 people.

A recent documentary, Into The Fire, by Oscar-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel, focuses on the efforts of one Yazidi-led MAG demining team in the region.