As the Gulf War of 1991 drew to a close, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into the mountains of Northern Iraq to escape the conflict. These refugees were forced to remain in the mountains, where they faced bitterly cold and harsh conditions.
There was no water for washing on the mountain ridges, and the rocky ground made it very difficult to dig latrines. Before long, the very young and the very old became seriously ill, and early every morning pathetic figures gathered around hastily scratched out graves to bury that night's dead. Respectable teachers and doctors were appalled as they were reduced to rags, looking like beggars.
One day the newspaper headlines in Turkey quoted the cry of these refugees, "God does not love us!" As they reflected on their history of betrayal and atrocity, this new calamity forced them to conclude that God was against them.
Soon after one of our founders received a phone call from a friend with the news that British Christians had donated a couple of truckloads of blankets and other supplies. But how could we pay to ship these gifts down to the East of Turkey? In the afternoon we got another phone call with an offer to finance anything we wanted to do to help the people of Northern Iraq. Clearly God wanted to answer the cry of these refugees by sending his people with the answer.
During the next seven years Operation Mercy started a number of different programmes focused on relieving the suffering of the people in this area.
These included a Water and Sanitation Programme as most villages were using the same water source for drinking, washing, cooking and for irrigation and animal use, making water-borne diseases very prevalent. The water and sanitation programme was initiated to combat the increase of these diseases. Water sources (springs) were protected and a piped distribution system was laid for the village. This water distribution system included a reservoir and tap-stands, as well as irrigation run-off channels for animals to drink from. This well and distribution system is providing clean water to approximately 400 families and was put together by Operation Mercy working in partnership with Global Partners and UNICEF.
Another programme that was started among the refugees was the Selective Feeding Programme. This was started in the poorest areas of a place called Zakho in response to the critical condition of children under 5 years old. Surveys were undertaken and it quickly became apparent that many children, particularly in the summer months, were being seriously affected by the power cuts and water shortages. Diarrhoeal diseases were increasing rapidly as their mothers were not able to feed them during the crises. Mothers were taking water from the rivers that were obviously contaminated. The small ration that mothers were receiving was insufficient to give the children an adequate diet. The feeding programme supplemented the children's diets with much needed protein and vitamins. The programme was organised alongside the various UNICEF feeding programmes in Northern Iraq.
This tells of the beginnings of Operation Mercy and the few years we worked in Iraq. However more needs to be done. Since the 1991 Gulf War stringent sanctions have been applied to the Iraqi people causing severe adverse effects and creating an evolving disaster within Iraq. Added to which much of the infrastructure that included the facilities for the provision of clean water and sanitation were destroyed in the conflict leading to a deterioration in the health of the people particularly the children.
Reports of skyrocketing rates in infant mortality, general severe malnutrition and a critical shortage of essential medical supplies have continued to reach us over this past decade.
Operation Mercy has been involved in providing help to Iraqi refugees in neighboring Jordan for the past few years. We started the work in Jordan in 1996 and have a registered branch.
In preparation for the possible coming war in Iraq, Operation Mercy has become part of a UNHCR working group and has joined a consortium of NGO's as well as several local entities that are all actively preparing for this coming crisis.
Operation Mercy plans to work in cooperation with the UN and these other NGO's to prevent deaths, sustain refugees and war victims, and to meet the needs and ensure the well being of up to 38,000 families (approximately 280,000 persons).
The southern area of Iraq has been identified as a place that has been severely affected by the past ten years of deprivation and maybe a focal point of the coming war. There are presently no other NGO's working there.
Operation Mercy plans to initially provide a standard one-month food package (50 kg. flour, 5 lt. oil, 16.7 kg. beans, 3.3 kg. sugar and 720 g. salt) for up to six months, a clothing package and other aid if needed.
Phase one relief effort (three months): $800,000. (In UNHCR camps and/or initial start up in Iraq).
Phase two relief effort (six months): $1,500,000 (inside Iraq) dependent on official authorisation.