Assyrian Christian children playing in a refugee camp tent near Irbil Picture: Allen Kakony, ADFA
Living conditions for Assyrian Christian refugees forced from their homes in northern Iraq by Islamic State militants are so desperate that a town mortuary has been converted into a kitchen and bathroom.
The Assyrian Christians, one of the Middle East’s oldest ethnic groups, feared “annihilation” this year, now they face spending Christmas in squalor and plunging temperatures.
They are trying to celebrate Christmas as best they can and nativity scenes have been set up in refugee tents bogged in the mud.Children who have witnessed unimaginable horrors try to play with what toys they have left. They will be treated to cartoons on Christmas morning.
The crisis has galvanised London’s Assyrian Christian community, based largely in Ealing, who send medical supplies and aid parcels and wire dollars.One activist feared the Assyrians were being “abandoned to chaos” amid calls for the international community to provide weapons and training for local security forces.
The Islamic State group, surged across northern Iraq to eradicate “unbelievers” and more than 600,000 Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and other minorities are thought to have been displaced.When IS arrived, those not driven from their families and jobs were told to convert to Islam or face death.
Girls as young as 12 years old have been abducted, sold and forced into sexual slavery.Families fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plains and sought refuge in towns and cities like Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.Irbil’s Assyrian population swelled from about 35,000 people to some 100,000.
Those not sleeping in tents are bedding down in shells of buildings still under construction. All are open to the elements in plunging temperatures.Speaking to the Standard in a Skype interview from Irbil, Savina Dawood, 25, said: “People are living in construction buildings and in caravans, in churches.“They are so many that are living in tents outside and on the streets.
“The winter and the cold arrived almost a month ago.
“It has been raining really heavily, they are living on mud.Ms Dawood is an ambassador for A Demand for Action, a global organisation to support the protection of the Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.She said that for several months insufficient food has been delivered and there are fears this will affect the children’s immune systems during the winter.
She said: “One of the main concerns is diseases are going to be spreading, especially among the children.”A Demand for Action’s Christmas Spirit project will try to reach every child, to give them a present and play games, watch some cartoons and talk about the meaning of Christmas.
Mr Dawood said: “We need to make sure they consider it a bit more normal, because they are kids, we don’t want this to affect them throughout their whole life.”The grim living situation of people in Irbil was captured by filmmaker Sargon Saadi, The Last Plight.It shows a “house of the dead”, where bodies were once prepared for burial, now being used as bathing and cooking facilities.
Professional people now sleep in tents and car parks next to overflowing bins.One elderly lady tells the interviewer: “We are not able to shower, there are no heaters, filth reaches our necks.“We can barely sleep at all because of the bad smell.”Another woman complained Isis stole everything she owed, down to her dishes.
Mikhael Benjamin, of the Nineveh Research Center and Development, said: “These are crimes of ethnic and religious cleansing.”Hundreds of British soldiers are set to return to Iraq next year to train Iraqi and Kurdish troops for a spring offensive against Isis.
But they Assyrians fear the Kurdish army will be unable to protect them and want training and weapons for their own militias.
British-Assyrian writer Mardean Isaac, who is based in Surrey, said: “Assyrians were allies of the British Empire.“Many of the older members of the community were fought with the British Army and RAF.
“The ferocity of the Assyrian fighters in serving the British Empire was noted.
“We don’t just need food and blankets, but housing.“The conditions are appalling, it’s a desperate situation.”“The Assyrians have lived in Iraq for thousands of years, but now a living heritage is being annihilated.
“We’ve been abandoned to chaos and we need a sense that we have a stake in our protection.”