Geoffrey P. Johnston Geoffrey P. Johnston
Tim Uppal meets a girl who survived the genocide perpetrated by ISIS in northern Iraq and is considered an internally displaced person. “I want my father and brothers back,” the girl told Uppal. Her father and brothers were abducted by ISIS and are still missing. (Khalsa Aid northern Iraq co-ordiantor Sozan Fahmi/Supplied photo) KI
Tim Uppal is a compassionate conservative who believes in helping the vulnerable and the persecuted — even if that means travelling to a faraway land scarred by war and genocide.
Earlier this summer, the Canadian-born Sikh travelled to northern Iraq to help deliver humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, the terrorist movement that captured vast swathes of territory in 2014. Also referred to as ISIS or ISIL, the terrorist army systematically carried out campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, kidnapping of women and children, and sexual violence. They also deliberately destroyed cultural artifacts and churches, and looted and sold ancient works of art on the black market.
Last month, Uppal was in battered northern Iraq, visiting the Kurdish-controlled population centre of Erbil as well as camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. From July 17 to 24, he worked as a volunteer with the faith-based humanitarian organization Khalsa Aid, which operates out of Great Britain.
Uppal is a former Canadian member of Parliament and served as the minister of state for multiculturalism in the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Uppal was defeated in the 2015 federal election. In June 2018, he re-entered federal politics, winning the Conservative Party of Canada nomination for the riding of Edmonton Millwoods.
Survivors of genocide
Northern Iraq is home to many ancient Christian groups — Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and others — who are indigenous to the region. In 2014, when Islamic State forces swept across the north, Christian cities, towns and villages were ethnically cleansed and homes were destroyed.
The jihadists were also intent on wiping out the Yezidi, another distinct ethnic/religious group. The Yezidi were targets of especially furious genocidal attacks, mass executions and sexual slavery.
During his time in northern Iraq with Khalsa Aid, Uppal met with survivors and listened to their horrifying stories. He stated in an interview that he wanted to learn more about the genocide.
“I must say that it was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “Heartbreaking in so many ways; it was unbelievable.”
Uppal visited with the survivors in informal IDP camps. He explained that Khalsa Aid is helping many IDPs who were not able to find space in the main camps. These people live in makeshift camps or in unfinished buildings.
“That’s where we met them, in their homes,” Uppal said of the survivors’ tents or other humble dwellings.
“When you talk to older women, you will hear how they were jailed or held captive,” Uppal said. “And they were more concerned about what happened to their families. The men were killed off, the young boys — they are hoping they are still alive, but they still don’t know — and their daughters are being sold and used as sexual slaves.”
Uppal listened to mothers recount terrifying accounts of their daughters being raped and/or killed right in front of them. “It is difficult to hear,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“You sit down with a younger woman who was a sexual slave herself. And I didn’t pry for many details. I just listened through the interpreter.”
Uppal said that many of the women talked about how they escaped from their ISIS captors, often in the dead of night. “Either they escaped,” he said, “or they were bought back by their families.”
Uppal explained that there are online groups that sell the female captives, posting the pictures and prices of the sex slaves.
“I talked to a smuggler who helps people get their families back and get their daughters back,” he said. The families raise the funds to buy the daughters back. “I talked to a mother who is doing that.
“The smuggler will take the money and pretend to be a purchaser and actually pretty much risk his own life to purchase this girl back for the family,” he explained.
“That’s happening right now,” Uppal continued, noting that there was a Kurdish government program to help provide funds to buy back women back. “But obviously there is more that needs to be done, and there are still women that are there [in captivity].”
Uppal pointed out that boys are also being held captive by ISIS. “I met a young boy whose family helped to buy his way out,” Uppal recalled. “He was a general labourer, and he was just used by ISIS to deliver food and deliver supplies and stuff.”
Children born of rape
In addition, Uppal spoke to women who were held captive and impregnated by their captors, giving birth in captivity. But he said these children are not accepted by their mothers’ communities once they get away from ISIS.
According to Uppal, some captives have to make the decision to either stay with their young children in ISIS captivity or leave their children behind. “And that is understandingly causing some serious psychological situations, as well,” he stated.
Uppal recalled meeting with women “who left their children” behind with ISIS. And he also talked to families who said that their daughters won’t leave ISIS, because they refuse to leave their children behind. “It’s unimaginable,” he said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “I don’t even know how some of them are coping. And you can tell that there are some serious psychological issues that need to be addressed as well.”
Although ISIS has been defeated, the terrorist organization is still active in Iraq and elsewhere.
Are the IDPs that Uppal met in northern Iraq still fearful for their personal security?
“They are, depending where you are,” he replied. “In the Kurdistan controlled region, they are probably not fearful for their security on a day-to-day basis. But because of what they’ve gone through, they’re always afraid that something could happen.”
For example, Uppal said that while he was in the northern city of Mosul, an imam (an Islamic cleric) “said that it is halal to kill the Yezidis and the Christians. So that’s still happening. There is still vocal support for killing them and to reignite this genocide,” he warned.
“So if we’re not vigilant now, if you’re not listening now and paying attention now, I think something like that can happen again.”